The Trump administration recently announced plans to change “the spirit and the letter” of the National Environmental Policy Act. These plans would seriously weaken both the Act and an average person’s ability to find out about and comment on federal government decisions. Comments on the proposed changes are due March 10, 2020.
If reading and commenting on public documents makes your teeth grind and your vision dim and leaves you sick for months afterward, please consider simply signing one of the protest letters making rounds. For example, the Sierra Club has posted an alert here and an opportunity to take action here. The Protect NEPA coalition has posted an action item here. If you have time and the stomach, however, please consider learning more about the National Environmental Policy Act (see links below), and then read and comment on proposed changes here. Your life will be much easier if you have a copy of the original regulations handy so that you can see what’s being modified or deleted; a “redline” copy of additions and deletions is posted under “supporting documents” here.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to consider the environmental consequences of their actions and to make those considerations available to the public for comment. It’s one of the best ways for people to communicate with our government about countless decisions that affect the air we breathe, the land where we live, the water we drink, and the plants, animals, and other organisms we live with—everything that makes our planet home.
The more specific your comments, the better. Although sheer numbers of people who care are vital, individual comments receive individual attention. More important, you might see something that no one else does, or you might want to cheer for one change and object to another. Some of the changes are simply petty. Some of the changes are outright awful.
Consider the excision of NEPA’s heart, beginning on page 1, where federal officials delete the line that says NEPA is “our basic national charter for protection of the environment.” Arteries are ripped out too, such as any requirement to hold additional public meetings when there’s “substantial environmental controversy,” “substantial interest,” or a “request for a hearing by another agency.”
Or consider the removal of NEPA’s brain. New changes would eliminate the requirement that information “must be of high quality” and delete the observation that “Accurate scientific analysis, expert agency comments, and public scrutiny are essential to implementing NEPA.” “Rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives” disappears in favor of “Evaluate reasonable alternatives” (p. 26) In these changes, an environmental impact statement withers from “more than a disclosure statement”—a document to be used “by Federal officials in conjunction with other relevant material”—into strictly an isolated “document that informs federal agency decision making” (p. 20) without, presumably, any help from relevant material.
Or consider, distressingly, the removal of NEPA’s spirit—literally—in which (p. 3) “in order to comply with the spirit and letter of the law” is deleted and replaced with “to comply with the law.”
Or consider the removal of National, Environmental, and Act from NEPA, leaving only…P. “Effects should not be considered significant,” federal officials assert, “if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain….Analysis of cumulative effects is not required.” (p. 54)
Effects that last far into our future should be considered more significant, not less. The air we breathe and any pollution that taints it don’t pay attention to geographic crayon lines. Air pollution travels, and so does water. So do migratory birds, insects, and other animals, including us. All life is the product of a lengthy causal chain, the cumulative effect of billions of individual incidents. Remove a pint of blood, and you’re all right. Remove several more pints five minutes later, as a separate project, and the cumulative effects will almost certainly be significant, whether or not anyone analyzes them. Waving a wand of irrationality won’t make significant effects disappear.
If you find these changes distressing, individually and cumulatively significant, consider that there are more.
For now, as a member of the public, you can still comment. Changes to the National Environmental Policy Act affect each of us personally, and so I urge you, please, to respond personally, even if you only read one or two pages of changes. No matter what you decide to do, remember that no one else can convey your voice or your viewpoint as well as you do.
For now, we are stewards of our own present and future. After March 10, the spirit and letter of NEPA may become geographically distant, a part of our past, a casualty of a not-so-lengthy causal chain.
* To learn more about the National Environmental Policy Act, see A Citizen’s Guide to the National Environmental Policy Act (2007) .
**This item was originally posted in February; I’ve moved it here for archival purposes.