As some continue to wonder just how it is that someone like President Trump, with the tweets, the boorishness, and the general persona, remains so popular in certain circles, we see another example of policy coming from his administration that restores a modicum of sanity to government.
The latest is the announcement from the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on Jan. 9 that the agency is proposing to modernize the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the first time in roughly 40 years.
NEPA was signed into law back in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, in response to both a growing concern that pollution was getting out of control and the world’s apparent collective discovery of ecology a few months prior. It is the legislation that provides for, among other things, the Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that are required to be completed for pretty much any federal government project from building a dam to changing the windows in the BLM office.
In the nearly 50 years since its adoption, the NEPA has, unsurprisingly, vastly exceeded its intended mandate — the victim of “mission creep,” a term which really ought to be adopted as the official motto for every government agency.
Originally intended to require the government, quite appropriately, to have a look at whether a given federal project will have insuperable environmental impacts before launching, the act’s obligations have gestated to encompass all manner of considerations, many of which have little to do with acute environmental effects and more to do with the politics of the day.
Government bureaucracies are remarkably effective at self-mitosis, and as bureaucracy grows so too does the scope of their guiding documents. For instance, there are often several federal agencies that have a hand in any given federal project — a road or a water project in western Colorado could, for example, involve the BLM, the Forest Service, and the Corps of Engineers — and NEPA, at present, requires an EIS from each for the same project.
Among the ever-expanding list of things NEPA-mandated analyses must cogitate upon is an ever-expanding definition of “environmental effects”; once reasonably defined as those effects that can be shown to have a causal relationship with the project in question, that definition has been modified over time to include, well, just about anything bad, or potentially bad, or conceivably bad that may or may not happen, but could happen within a few hundred thousand square miles of the project epicenter.
The NEPA assessments also currently must take into account something called “cumulative impacts” — basically, this means that the particular road in question may not be found to have a deleterious impact on the level of air pollution or the longevity of the Richardson Ground Squirrel, but if you consider ALL the roads that have been, are being, or will be built, well that’s a different story.
The cumulative impact of all of this has been to delay critical infrastructure, energy, broadband, water, and other projects for years or even decades. The average time for completing a NEPA analysis is four and half years, but even this is a fraction of the time that an EIS on anything approaching a major project can take. It took five years to build the Hoover Dam — today, the Environmental Impact Statement on it wouldn’t be close to completion in that time.
Another part of the reason for the glacial pace attributed to NEPA is the fact that it is routinely used as an obstructionary weapon by the environmental lobby, which looks with resentment upon any human activity whatsoever on the grounds that it may interfere with the movements of a particular obscure breed of earthworm.
The updates proposed for NEPA are not exactly revolutionary; among the more important are establishing some more reasonable time limits to get the analyses done (two years for EIS’s and one year for the more abbreviated environmental assessments); applying some logical limits on what projects actually require a NEPA analysis; simplifying the definition of “effect” to not include every contingency possible in the course of human existence; and other proposals designed to streamline a process that has gotten away from its handlers and its intentions.
It may be unfortunate that a well-intended, and probably quite necessary, piece of legislation like the NEPA has been effectively weaponized over time by Luddite groups intent on waging war on human economic advancement; but that’s how politics works, and so from time to time positive action is required to put things back on track.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.