Update: The Trump administration’s changes were finalized on July 16, 2020, including all of the reforms outlined in this blog. However, on October 7, 2021, the Biden administration announced it was taking the first step to restore NEPA. Now we're urging the Biden administration to work swiftly to restore the government’s environmental moral compass. Stay tuned for how you can help our efforts.
There's a good chance you've never heard of the National Environmental Policy Act. But the Trump administration's proposed changes to this foundational federal policy could significantly undercut the environment's seat at our civic table.
That's because NEPA is the key mechanism used to assess the environmental consequences of pretty much any major action the government takes.
Whether it's permitting a natural gas pipeline or determining the route of a new highway, under the law, every federal agency must consider how its actions will affect our land, water, air, wildlife, and other natural resources. Agencies must seek out and gather input from the public, including ideas for alternatives, and they must consider the environmental impacts associated with these proposed actions throughout the decision-making process.
As described by Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who chaired the Senate's Interior Committee in 1969 when NEPA was passed, "Concern for environmental quality must be made part of every phase of Federal action."
NEPA does not require the agencies to protect the environment at all costs—we have other critical laws, like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, that explicitly limit pollution and degradation. Rather, NEPA acts like a moral compass pointing the country toward better environmental stewardship. It requires the government to value the environment, and to consider it on an even footing with other values when it makes decisions.
Today, the Trump administration proposed significant changes to the regulations that outline how federal agencies should implement NEPA. Some of the major changes include:
- No longer considering climate change impacts in NEPA reviews;
- Limiting the scope of reasonable alternatives that should be considered;
- Limiting the scope of agencies that will have input;
- Narrowing the scope of opportunities for public input and involvement; and
- Shortened timelines for the NEPA review process.
If approved, this would be the first major overhaul of the regulations in NEPA's history, upsetting processes that have been a bedrock of our environmental legal infrastructure for more than 40 years. These changes are unnecessary, as the current regulations have been very effective in both informing decisions and providing citizens with an opportunity to engage in decision-making. In addition, the existing NEPA regulations already include numerous provisions to coordinate work between agencies and streamline the review process.
Each federal agency also has its own rules and regulations that tailor NEPA to its unique decision-making process. The administration is chipping away at these agency-specific regulations, too.
In June, it issued guidance to agencies that, in essence, urges them to scale back their analyses of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions during NEPA reviews. And the U.S. Forest Service issued proposed changes to its NEPA regulations that narrow the opportunity for public involvement and exclude more agency actions from requiring an environmental assessment or impact statement.
The administration justifies these changes under the guise of increasing efficiency and reducing the burden on agencies and businesses. But the reality is, they would weaken critical protections for our environment and keep the public from weighing in.
The bottom line is, Congress designed NEPA to ensure the government makes fully informed, thoughtful decisions—not just expedient ones. The law's authors recognized that natural resources, like the Chesapeake Bay, are the foundation of our economies and our communities. Protecting them requires that NEPA policies remain strong and allow the public to participate fully in the process.
Here in the Chesapeake Bay, the NEPA process gives residents and citizen groups like CBF a chance to voice concerns about projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed 600-mile natural gas pipeline that would destroy forests in Virginia and increase sediment pollution to the Bay.
In fact, the Chesapeake Bay was the backdrop to one of the first major legal battles over NEPA in the early 1970s, when CBF helped organize a committee that challenged the Atomic Energy Commission's review process for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland. The seminal court case reaffirmed the importance of public involvement and strong, substantive environmental reviews under NEPA.
The administration's proposed changes are an attempt to thwart these processes that are critical to Bay restoration. They are also a clear departure from the original intent of NEPA.
As Sen. Jackson said in 1969, "The basic principle of the policy is that we must strive, in all that we do, to achieve a standard of excellence in man's relationship to his physical surroundings. If there are to be departures from this standard they will be exceptions to the rule and the policy. And as exceptions they will have to be justified in the light of public scrutiny."
CBF will be submitting official comments outlining our concerns about the proposed changes and urging the administration to maintain strong NEPA policies. You can learn more about our work to hold the government accountable here.
Denise Stranko, Federal Legislative and Policy Manager
Issues in this Post
Climate Change Climate Change Conservation Federal Affairs Office