On Friday, the Trump administration proposed changes to the implementation of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. One of the landmark environmental laws of the late 1960s and early ’70s, NEPA plays a smaller role in the public consciousness than its contemporaries, the Endangered Species Act and Clean Air and Water Acts, but it is no less important.
While other laws changed the standards to which we hold our air, water and ecological resources, NEPA changed the process by which we managed those resources. NEPA democratized American environmental policy by opening up environmental decisionmaking to the public and holding government officials accountable through the environmental review process. Environmental review requires decisionmakers to lay out the choices that they make, justify their reasoning and provide an opportunity for affected communities to provide input into government decisions. The changes proposed by the Trump administration chip away at regular Americans’ voices in environmental decisionmaking by exempting some projects from the environmental review process and placing limits on other reviews.
History shows the reason Americans pushed and Congress legislated for their voices to be heard in government environmental decisions furthering democratic vs. top-down governance of the people. During the second half of the 20th century as the American economy became more complex, the government’s role expanded alongside this complexity. But government decisions about public investments and regulations often were made outside of the public realm and with little input from impacted communities.
By the 1970s, this led to a raft of sunshine laws requiring government decisions to be made in a manner open to the public and required that decisionmakers justify their actions to their constituents. NEPA is one of these laws, and today everything from the Keystone XL pipeline to the closure of the St. Anthony Falls Lock to the decommissioning of ski trails in the Superior National Forest requires an environmental review process. Because of NEPA, government officials must present a range of options, explain their rationale and receive comments from the public. This process-based approach allows people most affected by a project, whether barge operators or cross-county skiers, to provide input on the government’s decisions. The environmental review process is what allowed 60,000 comments on the permits for the proposed PolyMet mine outside of Hoyt Lakes.
Two proposed changes in particular would limit public involvement in making environmental decisions that affect Americans lives.
First, many projects currently subject to NEPA would be categorically exempted, because the federal government provides a “minimal” amount of funding or federal involvement “could not influence” the outcome of a project. The proposed changes do not specify what a “minimal” amount of funding is, opening the door for many projects to be categorically removed from the environmental review process.
Second, the proposals would limit the time it takes to complete reviews to one or two years, depending on the type of review, in addition to imposing page limits.
While time frames of years to complete an assessment may seem long, the data needed to understand an environmental impact often can only be collected at one time each year (for example, how snowmelt could impact pollution, or the presence of migratory birds), or requires data from multiple years to understand an environmental system. For large and complex projects, these time limits will require decisions to be made before all facts are known.
Similarly, a 150-page limit to environmental impact statements, while seemingly laudable in making the environmental review process more accessible, will likely lead to information important to some groups to be left out. The environmental review process is intended to be thorough, and imposing the same 150-page limit on a $15,000 ski trail and a $1 billion airport will leave the latter woefully underexamined.
The infrastructure projects subject to environmental review generally last decades, and allowing the public to deliberate and have all the facts is important for the government in getting environmental decisions right. We live in an era of strong political polarization, and in this era having an opportunity for discourse where all voices and facts are heard is needed more than ever.
Afton Clarke-Sather is an associate professor of geography at the University of Minnesota Duluth.