Boston used her brief time to make a plea to keep the law intact. “The rollback will limit the ability of my community to know the health consequences of government actions,” she said.
Activists and politicians who attended the hearing in an Interior Department auditorium denounced the meager time allotted for public comment and the sharply curtailed opportunities for citizens to speak out about a significant public policy change, forcing some to pay to travel from as far as California. Corporate trade representatives who support the proposed changes to NEPA echoed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s opinion that the law causes unnecessary delays that hold up projects by an average of four years.
“The consequences of the government being stuck in place are far-ranging,” from delaying new schools on Native American reservations to approving livestock grazing on public lands, Bernhardt said in January. “The list goes on and on and on. The reality is that the needless red tape has, over time, lowered the expectations of American exceptionalism and excellence. And that is backward.”
But carving away vital provisions in the law is unacceptable, said Christy Goldfuss, who chaired the council for two years under the Obama administration. Goldfuss said a proposal to remove a requirement that the federal government must consider the cumulative
s of oil pipelines and other projects “will allow dirty fossil fuel projects to proceed without analyzing how they would pollute over time.”
Goldfuss lashed out at the council she once led for another proposed change, one that would allow companies that seek approval for federally funded projects to conduct their own environmental reviews and choose what to disclose. And she was one of several speakers to argue that reducing the public comment period from at least 90 days to about 60 is a muzzle.
“This change will silence communities that could be harmed the most by federal actions,” said Goldfuss, a vice president for environment and energy policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“Shame on you!” Goldfuss shouted at her former co-workers. “How do you take out the conflicts-of-interest clause?” As music played to signal that her time was up, she said: “I want to point out the failure of this process. You are only holding two public meetings. … You cut out the rest of the country.”
NEPA was passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed into law by a Republican president, Richard Nixon, in 1970 “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”
It is considered the Magna Carta of environmental laws, imitated around the globe by nations hoping to protect public health as well as plants and animals. NEPA requires federal agencies to analyze thousands of projects every year — roads that slice through neighborhoods, oil drilling on public lands, projects to dig for minerals, and seismic testing for offshore oil deposits and building wind turbines.
When he entered office, President Trump said NEPA caused too many project delays and issued an executive order to streamline the process. After the order was issued, the council proposed that environmental reviews of proposed projects be completed within two years, potentially cutting out small community organizations that take longer to digest and understand technical papers.
Shaving years from the NEPA process takes away community voices and empowers corporations, environmental activists said. “It’s a huge win for the oil and gas industry,” Goldfuss said in an interview.
Chad Whiteman, a vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sided with the council. He sympathized with the concern that environmental impact statements, which were originally required to be 150 to 300 pages, are now an average length of 645 pages. “The federal process is getting progressively longer,” Whiteman said in his presentation.
“We need to get NEPA back to its original intent — making decisions in a timely manner,” Whiteman said in an interview after his testimony. For example, he said, a project to replace the Bonner Bridge in North Carolina’s Outer Banks was delayed for two decades because of the waterways and species it affected. “It took only three years to build after approval.”
Highway project delays caused by NEPA cost truckers billions of dollars each year, said Darrin Roth, the vice president for highway policy at the American Trucking Associations. “Every minute a truck sits in traffic adds $1.20 to the cost of that truck’s operation,” Roth claimed. “Industry-wide, that adds up to $75 billion a year. And that wasted time sitting in traffic has environmental consequences as well.”
Roth said traffic congestion caused truckers to burn 7 billion gallons of gas, more than 10 percent of the industry’s fuel consumption, producing more than 65 million tons of excess carbon emissions, according to his calculations.
While industries were represented by Whiteman, Roth and others, environmental justice advocates who otherwise could not afford to travel to Washington received help from the Moving Forward Network, a coalition of activist organizations that paid $30,000 so that 30 people could attend, said Angelo Logan, a coordinator who flew from Los Angeles.
“The inaccessibility is why I said the process is rigged,” U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in an interview. “Reducing comment to stifle criticism, you can check a box, a weak box, and say you had public comment, but you didn’t.” He was joined at the hearing by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.).
Nicky Sheats, the director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, N.J., said the Trump administration was sending a clear message.
“You are leaving these communities without protection,” Sheats said. Removing cumulative impacts, which analyzes how a proposed project would pollute the air and affect health and people’s lives, would strip away a powerful tool.
“Your actions are drowning out your words. Please don’t fail environmental justice communities,” Sheats added.