Climate Action

US proposes to gut nation’s oldest environmental law

For 50 years, the National Environmental Policy Act has protected communities from rushed, poorly planned and environmentally damaging federal projects. Now that law is under attack.  

Yesterday, the United States proposed changes to the nation’s oldest environmental law. The changes would narrow the scope of NEPA and cut the environment out of the review process for many of these projects. These changes could damage communities affected by projects, as well as fuel climate change worldwide.

“At the very moment we should be stiffening regulations to battle climate change, we’re loosening them,” said Earth Day Network President Kathleen Rogers. “And it’s local communities who will be hardest hit: NEPA has been used by communities over the last half-century to protect themselves, their families and their homes from reckless projects that destroy our environment.”

NEPA, passed on January 1, 1970, requires federal agencies to consider environmental costs before starting any major projects. NEPA applies to a broad range of actions, including how we build our cities — everything from constructing highways to laying pipelines to digging mines.

At the very moment we should be stiffening regulations to battle climate change, we’re loosening them.

Kathleen Rogers, Earth Day Network PResident

NEPA has also been one of the most powerful tools for concerned citizens, giving people a voice and a vehicle to protect themselves. For example, the powerful voices that have fought the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines have largely been granted such power through NEPA.

And NEPA doesn’t just protect environmental interests. When a proposed six-lane highway cuts through a predominantly black community, NEPA allows residents to speak up, delay and stop the process.

“This law was built on decades of activism from people who wanted a say in decisions affecting their health, their lives, their communities and their environment,” said Stephen Schima, a senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, in a statement. “By stacking the deck for corporate polluters and eviscerating public participation, this administration is trashing that legacy.”

The latest rollbacks are only the latest in a litany of environmental backtracking. In the last year alone, the White House has proposed changes to some of the most successful environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. The administration has also proposed rollbacks on methane regulation and car emission standards.

Most notably in November, the administration started paperwork to pull out of the Paris climate accord, which positions the U.S. as the first and only United Nations member state to opt out of the 2015 international agreement.

“It’s a disgrace that America, a country that has historically been a world leader on progress, is freefalling into the past, actively fueling the fire that is engulfing humanity,” said Rogers.

In a press conference yesterday, U.S. President Trump referenced NEPA as the cause for “endless delays [that] waste money, keep projects from breaking ground, and deny jobs to our nation’s incredible workers.”

But, according to the Taryn Tuss, communications director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality under the Obama administration, more than 90 percent of environmental reviews for NEPA are completed in a matter of days or weeks. Regardless, legislative barriers are key to environmental policy. If laws like NEPA didn’t exist, agencies would be more inclined, even incentivized, to ignore environmental costs altogether.

Through its anti-environment actions, the U.S. government is setting itself on a course of anti-progress. As the rest of the world attempts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adjust to a warming world, the U.S. is actively moving in the opposite direction.

NEPA was passed 50 years ago, and it’s tragically ironic that the so-called “mother of environmental laws” is being threatened the same year the world marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Tell leaders you’ve had enough of their irresponsible behavior. Take to the streets on Earth Day this year — April 22 — and join the largest, most diverse global mobilization in history.

“While past generations have had the convenience of pushing these problems into the future, we have no more time to waste,” said Rogers. “We stand to lose everything if we do nothing.”