The Trump Administration has proposed the first major changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in more than three decades. These proposed changes (announced in a Jan. 10, 2020 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) would limit the scope of environmental impact assessments that federal agencies must undertake before building highways, pipelines, bridges, telecommunications networks and other public infrastructure projects.
Many pro-business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, are applauding the proposal, saying that the changes would streamline an unnecessarily complex regulatory system and empower federal agencies to start much-needed infrastructure projects. But environmental watchdog groups say the changes would roll back protections meant to stem climate change.
The changes are still subject to a public input period and will not be finalized for several more weeks. However, the changes are part of a broader White House effort to reduce environmental regulatory burdens for federal agencies, and that trend shows no sign of abating.
The History of NEPA and How It Currently Impacts Projects
NEPA was signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970 and it requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. The range of actions covered by NEPA is broad and includes:
Decisions on permit applications; Adopting federal land management actions; and Constructing highways, pipelines and other publicly-owned facilities. Using the NEPA process, agencies evaluate the environmental and related social and economic effects of their proposed actions. Under the current version of NEPA, this includes the cumulative impact of a particular action and an assessment of how it may contribute to climate change and other long-term, indirect environmental issues. Agencies also provide opportunities for public review and comment on those evaluations.
In recent years, a number of large-scale projects were successfully blocked in court by plaintiffs who argued that the burden of reviewing indirect climate impact was not met as required by NEPA.
NEPA, which applies to nearly 80 federal government agencies, has not been substantially revised since the late 1970s. The House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) began soliciting input on changes in 2018 and spent much of 2019 reviewing the current guidelines and working on proposed revisions.
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