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White House, Congress Take Aim at Environmental Review Law

Under NEPA, federal agencies must review the environmental impact of infrastructure projects, such as Oregon's dams. (U.S. Forest Service/Flickr)
Under NEPA, federal agencies must review the environmental impact of infrastructure projects, such as Oregon's dams. (U.S. Forest Service/Flickr)
July 13, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. – A law for evaluating the environmental impact of infrastructure projects is being targeted for changes by the White House and Congress. The National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA lays out the review process for federal agencies when considering major projects.

Western Environmental Law Center staff attorney Susan Jane Brown says NEPA allows agencies to "look before they leap." But it's garnered criticism from Republicans, including Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who says the NEPA process paralyzes activity in the West.

Brown says the Trump administration wants to follow his lead.

"There are many in the administration that have taken the House's willingness to gut NEPA as a green light to proceed with larger policy initiatives coming from the executive branch that have the same sort of impact," says Brown.

Federal agencies use the NEPA process to consider the environmental impacts of many projects, including timber sales, building highways and bridges, and renewing licenses for dams. One review now underway is looking at dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their impact on endangered salmon.

The rule changes aren't final, but Brown cites concerns about proposals from the Trump administration. She says agencies may not have to consider alternative plans that could have less impact on the environment, and they could also reduce the public's role in the planning process.

Brown thinks the public should be part of the NEPA process, because the outcome affects them.

"Suggesting that public comment is burdensome for federal agencies to deal with, frankly, is pretty obnoxious and anti-democratic," says Brown.

Brown says the Trump administration has made it clear it wants to permit as much fossil-fuel development as it can, both on and off public lands.

While the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project proposed in southern Oregon already is under review and wouldn't be affected by potential NEPA reforms, Brown says she could see similar projects exempted from environmental review under the proposed changes.

She explains, "Because that's some of the rhetoric that we've heard from the administration – that these reviews simply take too long and are too burdensome on industry, and so we should just dispense with those requirements altogether."

The Center on Environmental Quality accepts public comments on changes to the NEPA process through July 20.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR