The landmark National Environmental Policy Act — signed into law in 1970 by none other than Republican President Richard Nixon — is facing wholesale revision, with time running out to comment on proposed changes to the regulations governing how the law is applied.
President Donald Trump announced in January he wanted updates to NEPA, which requires environmental assessments on projects handled by the federal government. It is the bedrock law of the environmental movement, a product of a time that created lasting protections for the country’s air, water and land.
The deadline to comment is Tuesday, closing a 60-day window, a shorter time than usually allowed for changes of this magnitude.
It was obvious from his announcement that Trump’s goal is doing work faster, no matter what. As Trump put it: “We want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways bigger, better, faster. These endless delays waste money, keep projects from breaking ground and deny jobs to our nation’s incredible workers.”
The overhaul limits most federal environmental reviews to two years and even restricts the number of pages allowed for environmental-impact statements. Other changes curb the scope of environmental analyses, reduce disclosures to the public and speed up the process for granting federal approval for major projects.
Together, they would help gut one of the country’s best protections for the environment. These protections work whether a ski area is planning an expansion on national forest land, a nuclear waste facility is being constructed or if oil and gas permits are being sold on public lands.
NEPA — often attacked as burdensome — was not designed to be a rubber stamp. It was intended to make sure projects are vetted properly by requiring the government to include plenty of public and community commentary, to allow time for proper deliberations and to consider the impact of projects not just in the immediate future but over the long haul.
A key to the revisions — one that would harm New Mexico — is striking requirements to evaluate the cumulative effects of a proposal on climate change as part of the decisionmaking process. Think of it this way: A neighborhood has nine oil refineries, and a 10th is proposed. New NEPA regulations would consider just the impact of 10th while current rules would look at the cumulative effect of so many plants in one area.
More than 320 groups asked the Trump administration for a longer comment period, a request that was ignored. That is hardly surprising, considering the continued assault by Trump and his administration on environmental laws and regulations.
These proposed changes will not be allowed to stand. States will sue the federal government. Environmental groups will fight back, perhaps filing additional lawsuits. Communities where protections are being stripped — think of rapid approval for oil and gas pipelines, with no consideration for neighborhoods — will push against the changes.
And, most importantly, when voting in November, citizens must think less about whether their favorite candidate is on the ballot and more about the quality of air they breathe, the water they drink and the land they walk upon. Environmental protections are under assault. Comment now, but make sure to vote later.