Lauren R. Stevens: NEPA is worth conserving

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The National Environmental Policy Act requires all federal agencies to go through a formal permitting process for major projects, like roads, bridges, mines, power plants, drilling and pipelines, anticipated to have substantial impact on the environment. It provides the public a voice in such decisions. President Donald J. Trump is attempting to destroy it from within.

Congress enacted and, in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law, this first major piece of environmental legislation, the one on which much subsequent legislation was built. In those days caring for the environment was non-partisan. Among the stated purposes of NEPA: "To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment."

Trump can't change the law, only Congress could do that, but he is trying to undermine the ways in which the law is carried out. Environmental groups and others have gone to court to try to stop him and, of course, so could the upcoming election. Massachusetts has its own MEPA, which would not be altered by Trump's actions.

Trump announced the changes July 15 at a UPS facility in Atlanta, because he wanted a local freeway expansion project to be the first carried out under the new regulations. Saying "bureaucratic red tape" had been "the biggest obstacle to building a modern transportation system," he predicted his streamlined NEPA could permit the project in two years, as opposed to the average of seven years previously.

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It may be the oil industry that would rejoice most, though, as the Keystone and other pipeline projects have been held up by NEPA. The people likely to be injured the most would be the poor and communities of color where polluting highways, pipelines and industries have often been placed. Those communities would lose their opportunities to object.

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The revised regulations would also limit projects subject to NEPA review and make it harder to file legal challenges. The Trump administration has upended more than 100 environmental regulations in an effort to promote business, particularly the energy sector.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr. has come out with a $2 trillion plan to deal with climate change and economic recovery from the novel coronavirus while addressing racism. It would increase the use of clean energy in the transportation, electricity and building sectors in an attempt to create economic opportunities while battling warming.

As Trump's promises for infrastructure remain largely unfulfilled, Biden has attempted to make the issue his own. That includes achieving an emissions-free power sector by 2035 and upgrading four million buildings for energy efficiency over four years. And he notes that "environmental policy decisions of the past have failed communities of color."

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So, as with the areas of immigration, health care and many others, the divide is as wide as the still-preserved Grand Canyon. While many environmentalists are disappointed that Biden's package doesn't include a provision to stop fracking, for example, Trump's attempt to bore inside NEPA makes the alternatives in the upcoming election even starker than they were previously.

So, vote. At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks (not the White House.)

Lauren R. Stevens is a writer and an environmentalist.


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