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[GreenYes] Fwd: [USCC]White House Takes Aim at NEPA

From: Jim McNelly <>
Date: Fri, 08 Nov 2002 13:04:02 -0600

White House takes aim at NEPA
By John Krist
Friday, November 08, 2002

In his first official act of 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law.
It was a symbolically appropriate way to begin the decade: The 1970s marked a watershed in the federal government's approach to the environment, and NEPA did more than any other single piece of legislation enacted during those years to fundamentally reshape the relationship between Americans and their air, water, and land.

NEPA stands apart from many environmental statutes in another way: It has remained almost unaltered since enactment more than three decades ago. The Bush administration has apparently decided that is long enough.

Citing national security concerns, the administration is pressing ahead quickly during the waning months of 2002 on proposals to "modernize and improve" the landmark law. NEPA's defenders argue that the act has served the nation well and needs no revision or at least not the kind they suspect the White House has in mind.

Passed by Congress in 1969, NEPA requires the U.S. government to assess the environmental effect of any significant project undertaken by a federal agency, funded with federal money, or requiring a permit from a federal agency. It requires public disclosure of the results of that assessment and a public determination as to whether the benefits outweigh the consequences.

Those requirements seem merely prudent and unsurprising today, but 33 years ago they were revolutionary. NEPA upended the historical relationship between Americans and the environment, requiring for the first time that government agencies "look before they leap," rather than trying to ignore or reverse environmental damage after the fact. One of its authors, Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, called NEPA "the most important and far-reaching conservation and environmental measure ever enacted."

Only months after NEPA became law, the California Legislature used the federal statute as a model for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The state law is broader in some ways than NEPA, for it applies even to private actions on private property if they would have a significant environmental effect and require discretionary approval from any government agency federal, state, regional, or local.

CEQA will remain in effect regardless of whether federal lawmakers and Bush Administration appointees amend NEPA. Although that will blunt the effect of possible NEPA modifications in California, the state still has millions of acres of national forests, national parks, and federal offshore waters where NEPA changes could have dramatic effects.

California was not alone in emulating NEPA. Half the states and more than 80 countries eventually adopted statutes requiring environmental assessments. Attorney Nicholas Yost, who served as general counsel for the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) during the 1970s, has called NEPA "the most widely copied American law in all history."
As might be expected from laws specifically designed to slow the permitting process and prevent some projects from going forward, NEPA and CEQA have become lightning rods for criticism from a wide range of interest groups. Local government officials, developers, farmers, miners, timber companies just about any person, business, or organization involved in the use of natural resources have complained about the reach of both laws.

Whereas CEQA has been amended numerous times, NEPA remains fundamentally unchanged, and its implementing procedures have undergone only one substantial revision. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter ordered the CEQ to draft regulations reducing the quantity of paperwork and length of time involved in NEPA compliance.

The CEQ, an obscure federal body within the Executive Office of the President, was established by NEPA. The council is charged with promulgating NEPA regulations applicable to other federal agencies, and with resolving disputes among federal agencies regarding NEPA compliance. The council comprises three members appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation.

The council and its staff spent months carrying out Carter's directive, traveling the country to meet with stakeholders of every persuasion. The CEQ asked the United States Chamber of Commerce to coordinate participation by the business community and asked the Natural Resources Defense Council to do the same for the environmental community. According to Yost, CEQ staff met with labor representatives, state government officials, federal employees, scientists, trade groups, and others.

The 18-month effort produced several notable revisions, including a time limit on reviews, the use of public input to identify early in the process those issues to be addressed through the environmental impact statement (EIS), and the requirement for a "record of decision" through which a federal agency follows completion of the EIS by producing a public document describing in detail the action to be taken and its environmental consequences.

The current NEPA revision process is neither so inclusive nor so leisurely. On April 10, Horst Greczmiel, CEQ's associate director for NEPA oversight, sent a letter to CEQ Chairman James Connaughton requesting approval of a task force assigned to modernize the NEPA process, citing "rapid advances in technology and information security concerns following the events of Sept. 11, 2001."

Connaughton a former industry lobbyist whose ties to mining companies and the Chemical Manufacturers Association were criticized by environmentalists during his confirmation hearing approved the task force, which was formed on May 20, and named Greczmiel chairman. A notice appeared July 9 in the Federal Register announcing a 45-day public comment period during which interested parties were invited to suggest changes in NEPA. (The deadline was later extended to Sept. 23.)

Environmental organizations have criticized the process as another in a series of Bush administration attempts to undermine NEPA. The critics cite ongoing federal efforts to exempt logging plans from analysis and public review under the guise of fire prevention, to expedite review of some transportation projects, and to exempt federal activities from NEPA if they occur in offshore waters.

"This is an administration that prefers to operate in secret," said Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice.
Connaughton denies that the task force is looking for ways to weaken NEPA. "Our goal is to integrate NEPA practices with newer concepts of management, such as environmental management systems and advancing information technologies," he said in July.

Most of the specific issues on which the task force has invited suggestions for improvement do, indeed, concern better use of technology in analysis and communication and are unlikely to have much effect on day-to-day implementation of the law.
Two areas of focus, however, alarm the Bush administration's critics: expanding the use of "categorical exclusions" by which federal agencies can declare certain types projects exempt from environmental analysis and reviewing the "balancing of public involvement and information security."

To environmentalists, the latter term is code for quashing public input. And the rapid, low-profile nature of the entire process suggests the environmentalists might have reason to worry. The CEQ task force expects to finish its work and issue a report by the end of the year.

Environmental News Network

Gary Liss
Fax: 916-652-0485
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