Join the fight to protect landmark environmental law

by Trevor Russell
Pipelines, mines, roads and other large projects could avoid environmental review under a proposal by the Trump Administration. (Photo courtesy of

The Trump Administration announced proposed changes that would severely undermine the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – a decades-old law that ensures thorough scientific review and public participation in major environmental decisions.

(If that's all you need to hear, you can take action here until Tuesday, March 10, 5 p.m.)

What’s NEPA?

The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is considered a cornerstone of federal environmental law.  

The law established the nation’s basic “look before you leap” approach for large projects with major environmental implications. NEPA requires that federal agencies review the environmental effects of projects undertaken, permitted or funded by the federal government before action is taken.

This law also requires agencies to explore less-harmful alternatives and allow public participation in the decision-making process.

In short, NEPA ensures that federal agencies make better-informed decisions and that the public knows what those agencies are up to before decisions are made.

For the past 50 years, it’s worked pretty well. Until now.

Rushed rollbacks

On January 9, 2020, the Trump Administration published new rules on how it will implement NEPA. 

In keeping with the proposed rules' reduction of public input, the administration elected to hold just two public hearings (February 11th in Denver and February 25th in Washington DC) and limited public comment to just 60 days, despite requests to extend the deadline.

As a result, organizations (including FMR) are scrambling to learn more about the justification for the proposal and how it could affect the river and all the natural resources we work to defend and restore.

What we know so far

So, how concerning is this proposal? Well, there’s a lot to it, and you are more than welcome to read the whole thing in the Federal Register. For those less inclined toward self-punishment, we’ve detailed the “bottom six” most concerning provisions.

To the best of our knowledge, the NEPA proposal will:

  1. Eliminate NEPA review for many projects
    The proposal redefines “major federal action” to potentially exclude some controversial projects like pipelines, mines, roads, dams, levees and more from environmental review currently required by NEPA.
  2. Ignore science
    The proposal specifically states that agencies “are not required to undertake new scientific and technical research to inform their analyses.” This effectively means that agencies can approve projects without understanding the impacts of those projects on our ecosystem – the very reason for conducting an environmental review.
  3. Ignore climate change
    The proposal states that the analysis of cumulative effects “is not required.” This curtails the review of a project’s role in increasing climate change, a move in line with the administration's previous related order.
  4. Allow polluter self-assessment
    The rules allow project proposers to prepare their own impact statements (rather than having agencies conduct the review). That’s like allowing the fox to assess its impact on the chicken coop. It also eliminates the requirement that firms disclose any financial conflicts of interest they may have – a clear violation of public trust.
  5. Limit public input
    The proposal creates new limits on what kinds of public comments will be considered, including anything the agencies deem insufficiently specific or technical in nature – precisely the kinds of comments most likely to come from individuals and frontline communities without the resources to fund pricey technical reviews, who could be harmed most by federal action.
  6. Rush the job
    The proposal places arbitrary timeline guidance on reviews. Environmental Assessments (EAs) are targeted to 12 months, and more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) must aim for 24 months, regardless of project complexity.

Overall, the proposal appears designed to undermine the best intentions of NEPA by limiting/narrowing the review of potential environmental impacts of important projects and by making it harder for communities affected by such decisions to have their voices heard.

Justification: current reviews take decades?

Unfortunately, the clearest justification for the proposal so far appears to be the least rooted in fact. Upon announcing the proposal, President Trump suggested the move was needed to speed project approval, claiming “…It takes 20 years, it takes 30 years, it takes numbers that nobody would even believe.”

You shouldn’t believe it either.

Of the just 5% of federally funded projects that are even required to conduct an assessment, the Government Accountability Office found Environmental Assessments run from just 4-18 months. The Environmental Impact Statement process — which applies to just 1% of projects that are the most complex and risky — averages out to 4.6 years. That’s a far cry from 20 and 30 years.

Nonetheless, this proposal aims to dramatically accelerate reviews at the cost of public participation and scientific credibility. 

Take action

If you're reading this before Tuesday, March 10, 5 p.m. you can urge the administration not to adopt this proposal.

Act now: Protect our bedrock environmental law!  

If you’re seeing this after March 10th ….we’re sorry.

It’s probably frustrating that you aren’t allowed to have your voice heard on this important decision – exactly the kind of frustration that millions of Americans will experience if this proposal is eventually adopted.

Become a River Guardian! 

At FMR, we count on our network of River Guardians to take action to support and strengthen environmental protections for our great river. Sign up to be a River Guardian and we'll be in touch when we need your help the most.


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