Andy Kubis contributed to this report.
Since its passage in 1970, National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] has been used to ensure that federal agencies consider environmental effects before approving projects that receive federal funding or require federal permits. But earlier this month the Trump administration proposed overhauling the law, calling it “outrageously slow and burdensome.”
For our podcast, Trump on Earth, we dig into what many are calling Trump’s biggest environmental rollback with Sharon Buccino, senior director of the lands division of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In a New York Times opinion piece, Buccino argued Trump’s weakening of the law would leave the public in the dark.
The administration says the law is slowing badly needed infrastructure projects – bridges, highways, airports – but also privately run oil and gas pipelines and power plants. The decision was praised by the fossil fuel, and ranching industries and building trade unions, who have complained for a long time that NEPA is a job-killer.
But environmental groups say it’s a hand out to polluting industries and will prevent the public from seeing the climate impacts of big projects.
“One thing that’s so important about the law is that it really affects all different kinds of projects—highways, bridges, transportation,” Buccino said. “And NEPA (as it is currently written) recognizes that the public not only has a right to information, but that the public also has an indispensable and critical role in informing and shaping the decisions that our federal government was making for us.”
“It’s a fundamental attack on our system of environmental protection, but also a fundamental attack on our democracy.”
Trump’s proposal removes a requirement to assess a project’s cumulative impacts, like the emission of greenhouse gases. So, Buccino explained, that could mean that agencies wouldn’t be required to consider climate change when making regulations or permitting projects seeking federal approval.
“That’s doing an incredible disservice to the American public,” she said. “Look, nobody wants overregulation. But we do want smart, informed decisions to be made. And if we’re rebuilding after, say, Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, we want to do that in a way that’s informed and takes into account what’s going to happen next rather than building willy nilly and having it destroyed in a couple more years. That’s just not smart.”
Trump has said NEPA is responsible for keeping major infrastructure projects from being completed. But Buccino said he’s missing the big picture. And some critical facts.
“Most of the decisions go through very very quickly— 95%,” she explained. “But the few that do take some time do so for a reason. It’s because they’re projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline. Those are critical decisions that the nation is making about our future. Do we really want to lock in this carbon?”
According to Buccino, these are fundamental questions and our government owes it to us to give us the opportunity to have a say in those decisions. “We should do that process efficiently and effectively, but we shouldn’t just throw it out the door,” she said. “And that’s essentially what Trump is proposing to do with these changes.”
And on the question of whether she thinks this is Trump’s biggest environmental rollback Buccino said, “It’s a fundamental attack on our system of environmental protection, but also a fundamental attack on our democracy.”