Fifty-Year-Old Science-Based Legislation, NEPA, is Gutted

Published Oct 6, 2020

What Happened: A final rule upended processes by which science is used to analyze how government projects impact the environment and surrounding communities.

Why it matters: If the federal government cannot conduct a comprehensive scientific assessment in environmental reviews then decisions will be made that have environmental impacts. These decisions also will affect the environment of surrounding communities, particularly underserved communities that often bear the brunt of such harms. By removing science from how we assess the health and environmental impacts of thousands of major infrastructure projects, the government is more likely to elevate political and industry concerns over the ability to protect people’s health and the environment.

The Council of Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) revised regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) went into effect during September 2020, making it more difficult to integrate scientific evidence and community input into future decisions. More specifically, the new regulations aim to streamline environmental reviews for government projects by removing mandates to study cumulative impacts from air pollution, placing page and time limits on scientific studies, and ignoring effects on climate change. In doing so the new processes are certain to skirt scientific evidence and leave out input from communities of color and low-income communities.

The new regulations set both page and time limits for environmental reviews, thereby impacting the ability of scientists to fully analyze the potential environmental harms that could result from government projects. Environmental impact statements can be upwards of hundreds of pages, and sometimes thousands of pages if the project is quite complex. These types of studies also may take years to complete. Now, scientists and other experts will have a deadline of 1-2 years to complete most reviews that shall be no longer than 75-150 pages in length. If scientists determined they needed more room to discuss data, analyses, or their conclusions then they will have to seek permission from a senior official.

The changes to NEPA also make it more difficult for underserved communities to participate in the decision-making process. For example, written comments submitted by community members now must be more technical to be fully considered. They must include information about economic and employment impacts and reference page numbers of the environmental review. Communities, and particularly underserved communities, may not have the time or resources to write such a comment, thereby placing barriers and further alienating community members that will be most impacted by a government project.

The new regulations also remove consideration of cumulative impacts (e.g.,when air pollutants are generated in addition to greenspace being removed by the construction of a new highway system). This will further harm underserved communities who have for years been fighting for environmental justice. Another way that the new NEPA regulations sideline science is by freeing agencies from having to consider the impacts of a project on climate change.

These changes make it nearly impossible for federal agency scientists and experts to conduct a comprehensive analysis on how a government project will impact the environment and, subsequently, surrounding communities. By sidelining scientific evidence and analyses, government projects are likely to have a larger impact on the environment, such as by jeopardizing endangered species and further contributing to the threat of climate change. Altering this long-standing science-based process also will continue to place the brunt of environmental harm on underserved communities. Our government has a duty to protect the people and the environment, and this substantial change in NEPA threatens to override one of the most important science-based processes in how we protect underserved communities and the environment.