The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was bipartisan legislation signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1969 to ensure federal agencies consider the environmental impacts of their actions and decisions. With rivers on fire and smog blacking out urban skies the public demanded action. Described as “sunshine in government,” NEPA’s purpose was not to protect the environment or wildlife like other bedrock environmental protection laws, rather it mandates that the environmental impacts of proposed federal actions must be analyzed and revealed to the public.
NEPA not only applies to management of public lands with which we are familiar, it is also about clean drinking water supplies, the location of major projects such as pipelines and cost/benefit analysis to reduce waste of taxpayer resources.
NEPA’s public participation process ensures that the American public gets an opportunity for its say. This is vital to the management of federal public lands, which are “owned” by the people. Many successful lawsuits challenging government projects are decided on the procedural requirements of NEPA and the Administrative Procedure Act rather than the substantive provisions of other laws such as the Endangered Species Act. Why? Because the Courts recognize that NEPA is part of the bedrock of our participatory democracy and if the agencies shortcut NEPA they are shortcutting democracy.
Another NEPA shortcut is the release of “blink and you missed it” notices and comment periods around holidays when they are less likely to be noticed or acted upon. Some only have a 15-day comment period rather the 30-day standard under NEPA for big projects. Shortcutting the public comment process shortcuts democracy.
Oddly enough, NEPA is now a target of “green energy” proponents who want to shortcut NEPA to “speed up the process.” On the other end of the spectrum is Senator Joe Manchin who wants extractive non-renewable resource developments shielded from review.
Evading and streamlining NEPA promotes decision making in the dark without a proper weighing of risks and rewards or the need for the project in the first place. It is seriously eroding public trust in federal agencies. It used to be “trust but verify” but now it’s just verify. Any government agency that doesn’t want you to see what they are doing is probably doing something wrong.
Haste also makes waste. Expert reviewers have found that full NEPA compliance encourages agencies to propose sound projects that are more likely to receive public approval, generate less controversy and face less court challenges where the land management agencies have a dismal win/loss record. It’s a form of quality control and saves money in the long run by doing it right the first time.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant and the agencies must bask in its light. NEPA must be maintained, strengthened and enforced. A popular musical at the time of NEPA’s passage included the hit song “Let the Sunshine In.” Sing it loud, sing it proud.