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The National Environmental Policy Act "has played an undeniable role in giving communities the legal recourse to fight for their access to clean air, clean water, and land free from contaminants and pollution." (Photo: Fred Moore/Flickr/cc)

White House to Restore Key Elements of Nation's 'Bedrock Environmental Law' Gutted by Trump

"The Biden administration is demonstrating a willingness to listen to those on the frontlines of the climate crisis whose lives and livelihoods are on the line," said one advocate.

Julia Conley

Environmental defenders on Wednesday applauded the Biden administration's proposal to reinstate key elements of one of the United States' foundational environmental laws a year after former President Donald Trump gutted the measure, while emphasizing that the proposal is just a first step toward reversing the damage done by the previous administration.
 
The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced its plan to restore three major provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was passed by Congress in 1969 and requires environmental analyses of the impact projects such as highways and pipelines will have on local communities and the planet.
 
The CEQ's proposal includes:
  • Restoring the requirement that federal agencies evaluate all environmental impacts—including indirect or cumulative ones like long-term fossil fuel emissions—of projects seeking approval;
  • Restoring the authority of agencies to obtain input from communities that will be affected by projects and analyze alternative project proposals that would reduce impacts; and
  • Establishing that NEPA regulations are "a floor, rather than a ceiling" and allowing agencies to "tailor their NEPA procedures, consistent with the CEQ NEPA regulations, to help meet the specific needs of their agencies, the public, and stakeholders."
The Trump administration faced condemnation when it rolled back the law's provisions in 2020 and allowed less extensive environmental impact reviews, eliminated the review requirements altogether in some cases, and allowed projects to move forward without consideration for indirect environmental impacts.
 
The environmental legal organization Earthjustice called the CEQ's announcement "a good first step in undoing some of the damage" done by Trump.
 
 
"This critical law has played an undeniable role in giving communities the legal recourse to fight for their access to clean air, clean water, and land free from contaminants and pollution," said Stephen Schima, senior legislative counsel for the organization. "By reversing the Trump regulations that put polluter interests over those of the public, the Biden administration is demonstrating a willingness to listen to those on the frontlines of the climate crisis whose lives and livelihoods are on the line."

"The National Environmental Policy Act is critical to ensuring that federal project managers look before they leap—and listen to experts and the public on a project's potential impacts to people and wildlife alike."

 
CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory rejected the notion, often put forward by developers, that the restored regulations will slow down the construction of vital physical infrastructure—a key element of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda.
 
"The basic community safeguards we are proposing to restore would help ensure that American infrastructure gets built right the first time, and delivers real benefits—not harms—to people who live nearby," said Mallory. "Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help reduce conflict and litigation and help clear up some of the uncertainty that the previous administration's rule caused."
 
Despite the complaints of "oil drillers and other polluters," said Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "all of us, and, especially, frontline communities, benefit from these protections."
 
"As we face the devastating effects of flooding, heat waves, intense fires, and other climate impacts, we need to think carefully and plan accordingly before rushing to give the OK for dangerous fossil-fuel projects," she added.
 
The administration said Wednesday's announcement represents "phase one" of its restoration of NEPA. "Phase two" changes, to be announced in the coming months, will "help ensure full and fair public involvement in the environmental review process; meet the nation's environmental, climate change, and environmental justice challenges; provide regulatory certainty to stakeholders; and promote better decision-making consistent with NEPA's goals and requirements," according to CEQ.
 
Schima called the proposal "a partial down payment on a more comprehensive and much-needed overhaul of the 2020 Trump regulations" and said Earthjustice would work closely with CEQ "to ensure that the federal government is taking an active role in addressing the immediate and future impacts of climate change and its impacts on environmental justice communities."
 
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called the administration's proposed rule "an essential step to restore justice, transparency, and science into our nation’s bedrock environmental law," and particularly praised the planned return to evaluating indirect impacts of infrastructure projects.
 

"Assessing all cumulative impacts and alternatives for a project will mean better federal decisions, better outcomes for communities, and better results for public health."

"Assessing all cumulative impacts and alternatives for a project will mean better federal decisions, better outcomes for communities, and better results for public health," said Markey. "The National Environmental Policy Act is our major watchdog against pollution and environmental degradation, and this rule would provide small businesses, local officials, families, and other community stakeholders with even stronger protection against climate and conservation catastrophes."
 
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) also applauded the proposal, having joined a national coalition in suing the Trump administration last year over its rollback of NEPA
 
"The National Environmental Policy Act is critical to ensuring that federal project managers look before they leap—and listen to experts and the public on a project's potential impacts to people and wildlife alike," said Mustafa Santiago Ali, the group's vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization.
 
"We look forward to working with the Biden administration to ensure this new rule prioritizes the input of frontline and historically marginalized communities, and to quickly restore all of NEPA's essential protections," Ali added.

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