Trump Wants To Take A Red Pen To The National Environmental Policy Act

The National Environmental Policy Act allowed opponents of the proposed Illiana Expressway to effectively argue that the highway would have an adverse impact on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ
The National Environmental Policy Act allowed opponents of the proposed Illiana Expressway to effectively argue that the highway would have an adverse impact on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

Trump Wants To Take A Red Pen To The National Environmental Policy Act

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President Trump says a federal environmental rule known as NEPA is a “regulatory nightmare,” and he’s set out to “completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions.”

The president took to a podium last month to denounce what he termed NEPA’s “job-killing regulations” and to take steps, he said, to improve the quality of life for all citizens.

He was announcing rule changes to the National Environmental Policy Act.

Enacted in 1970, NEPA is widely regarded by experts as the Magna Carta of environmental law. Still, it’s not anywhere near as recognizable as other key environmental legislation. Think: the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act.

Rachel Granneman is an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a team of public interest legal advocates who work on environmental issues throughout the Midwest. She explains the National Environmental Policy Act this way:

“The purpose is to require thoughtful and informed decision-making by federal agencies. So when a federal agency takes an action, whether that’s funding a project or permitting a project, NEPA requires them to really look at what the environmental impacts of that action will be, look at alternatives to that action to see if there are better ways of accomplishing the same goal and also to take into account the public input.”

Here are some of the changes the president wants to make to NEPA:

  • The administration wants to create a new category of “non major” federal actions that can move forward without assessment.

  • Applicants would no longer have to consider the “cumulative” impacts of new infrastructure. This change is seen by environmentalists as a way to remove climate change as a consideration on fossil fuel projects.

  • The administration also wants a limit of two years for completion of environmental impact statements and one year for completion of environmental assessments. 

Granneman argues that “large projects are often slow to be built because they don’t have enough funding to move quickly. There’s no political support for them, for them to move quickly. They run into permitting problems where it’s just a complex project.”

It’s easy to document many projects that have benefited from the NEPA process. Over 100 countries have emulated the legislation.

At the press conference, the president said, “It can take more than 10 years just to get a permit to build a simple road — just a very simple road.”

Actually, sometimes roads never get built. A good local example is a plan for what was called the Illiana Expressway. The project was a 50-mile expressway to connect I-55 to I-65 in Indiana. A federal judge eventually ruled that state and federal approvals of the roadway violated NEPA.

A federal court agreed with opponents of the roadway project that the Federal Highway Administration hadn’t taken a serious look at the “no-build” outcome required by NEPA and did an “arbitrary and capricious” environmental impact statement rather than take NEPA requirements seriously. It took five years, but the highway project was finally killed in 2015.

NEPA has been helpful in exposing personal and political interests in highway projects, as well. Let’s recall the billion-dollar Prairie Parkway project. That was a proposed 37-mile link between I-80 and I-88 in the far western and southwestern suburbs. It was a pet project of Dennis Hastert, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, of Plano, Illinois. The NEPA requirements proved a highway wasn’t necessary. Its environmental impact statement showed significant environmental impacts. The consideration of a more effective alternative road improvement was adopted. While the regulatory process unfolded, it was revealed that Hastert had a secret land deal that benefited from the project.

While she was in Chicago recently, Gina McCarthy, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said 95% of NEPA applications are routine and “those 5% that are captured in more lengthy review and public process are the ones that need it, because they have a potential for significant damage.”

Environmental Law & Policy Center attorney Rachel Granneman has three key objections to the Trump administration’s rule changes to NEPA:

  • The changes encourage federal agencies to ignore climate impacts.

  • The changes restrict input from and oversight by the courts.

  • The changes limit alternatives agencies can consider.

She is not alone in rejecting the changes. The 59,000 and counting comments on the government’s website are overwhelmingly negative.

The Trump administration is holding two public hearings on its NEPA changes. One was just completed in Denver. The other is in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25. The slots to speak filled up in minutes.

Fifty-five groups from the Great Lakes region have requested an extension of the public comment period and called for a public hearing in the Great Lakes region. They’re worried that the rule changes will affect future projects on clean drinking water, toxic algae blooms and climate-affected water levels.

The changes proposed for NEPA join an avalanche of other environmental rollbacks proposed by the Trump administration. The New York Times counts 95 environmental rollbacks.

NRDC chief Gina McCarthy sees it this way: “It really is a remarkable journey that they’re taking us [on], which is really honestly, it’s just trying to get rid of absolutely everything that I think any of us ever thought about to protect the environment. And so … in that regard, it’s unprecedented.”

Jerome McDonnell covers the environment and climate for WBEZ. You can follow him @JeromeMcDonnell.