If it weren’t for the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), thousands of acres of public lands in the West would be gone in a virtual giveaway to oil and gas companies contrived under the veil of a global pandemic. The principles that enabled those acres to be protected were largely stripped from the new version of NEPA unveiled by the Administration earlier this month. In countless ways, what the administration has done to this 50-year-old law is dangerous and illegal, and the National Audubon Society is joining a coalition of environmental justice and conservation organizations to stop them.
The law, enacted in 1970 and signed by President Nixon, ensures we think carefully about the environment, public health, and the views of the people affected before the government pursues or endorses major construction, drilling, or other types of projects. It’s common sense but we need the rules to make sure common sense can prevail. The changes made by the administration render NEPA unrecognizable when compared to the intent of the original law, and have ripple effects across conservation, health, and safety.
This is exactly the wrong time to abolish a system that promotes science, public input, and establishes basic protections for people and the environment we need. Birds are a sentinel species – meaning if they are in trouble, we are in trouble. North America has lost 3 billion birds since 1970 and two-thirds of bird species face the threat of extinction if something isn’t done to counter the threat of climate change.
For the Audubon members who lent their names and stories to our lawsuit, saving NEPA is about protecting and conserving special places in states like Wyoming and Colorado where they hunt or simply enjoy sightings of burrowing owls, sage-grouse, pronghorn, elk, prairie dogs, and countless raptors and waterfowl. Beyond these places and important wildlife, there are people all over the country for whom this change poses a real threat to their health and safety.
As one of our co-plaintiffs, Dr. Nicky Sheats of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, put it: “Removing cumulative impacts from NEPA is almost tantamount to removing environmental justice from NEPA. Without the requirement of a cumulative assessment, NEPA provides much less protection for environmental justice communities. This is very troubling for a number of reasons, one being that protections for these communities in NEPA need to be strengthened, not weakened.”
When we build pipelines and refineries, bulldoze forests, or raise transmissions lines there are very real impacts those projects have not only on the environment, but on people. For decades NEPA ensured that the government not only accounted for those impacts through sound scientific study, but also through public input. These processes are critical and can be improved, especially as we know that these projects often come with pollution and other health risks that disproportionately affect low-income and rural communities, as well as people of color.
The fact is it doesn’t matter where you live or if you have a favorite bird, at some point your life has been made better by the protections that were inscribed in NEPA. Imagine you woke up tomorrow and with little notice the public lands where you hike near your home was occupied by a crew preparing to construct a drill pad for natural gas exploration. Or what if the port that is a major source of the pollution exacerbating your asthma rushed through plans to expand and began construction without accounting for the added pollution or hearing from you? NEPA gives us a chance to weigh in and makes sure decisions that affect so many people take into account the environmental consequences before they are finalized.
The items listed below represent some of the most harmful changes made:
- Allows more off-ramps so agencies can simply decide projects are not subject to NEPA, and so do not require environmental review and public input.
- Narrows the types of effects from proposed actions that will even be considered.
- Limits on when and how the public will be given an opportunity to provide input on approving projects, such as building roads and transmission lines, leasing and drilling on public lands, and clearcutting forests.
- Weakens standards for relying on science in decision-making.
- Eliminates objective review by allowing the very industries that want to complete a project to prepare their own impact statements.
- Effectively eliminates consideration of many of the impacts from climate change that would arise from approving projects, such as leasing coal or opening more lands to oil and gas drilling.
- Permits more use of “categorical exclusions” to grease the wheels on approval and avoid public input and environmental review.
- Creates new arbitrarily short deadlines for review and public input no matter the scope of complexity of a project.
- Adds more hurdles to challenging decisions.
This is just the beginning of the fight. We will continue to work through this litigation and other means to ensure that no matter who are you are or where you live these protections apply to you and the birds, wildlife, and places you enjoy, and the clean air and water that should be safeguarded for all communities.