NEPA Rollback Endangers Communities and Wildlife

In mid-July, the Trump administration finalized its overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), enacting new regulations that weaken this key environmental law. Unprecedented in significance and scope, these changes undermine informed agency decision-making, reduce transparency, and limit critical public involvement. Moreover, they fundamentally erode the purpose and intent of NEPA by denying the public the democratic process at the heart of the law. AWI strongly opposed the changes, submitting comments on two rounds of notices and testifying at two public hearings.

Photo by no107
Photo by no107

NEPA, which was passed by Congress in 1969 with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, has been described as the basic charter for the protection of the environment. Fifty years later, it still stands as one of the most important environmental laws in the United States. Congress enacted the law to “promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere” in order to “fulfill the responsibility of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.” 

The three basic principles of NEPA are informed decision-making, transparency, and public input. The law requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of projects—such as new power plants, highways, oil and gas development, and logging—and to explore alternative approaches to achieving its objectives. It also provides opportunities for communities across the country to voice their concerns about how these proposals may threaten public health and ecosystems. AWI routinely relies on this law to provide input during administrative rulemaking proceedings and to engage in litigation involving wildlife management.

Federal decisions regarding land and ocean management, mining and drilling, and infrastructure will now be able to move forward without full consideration of their environmental impacts and without a requirement that a broad range of safer, more ecologically sound alternatives be considered. The new regulations also exempt many projects from the public review process required by NEPA. Moreover, agencies can now issue permits for projects such as coal mines and oil pipelines without considering the project’s adverse climate change impacts, despite numerous court rulings requiring agencies to conduct climate evaluations under NEPA.

This misguided approach will undoubtedly lead to destruction of wildlife habitat and loss of biodiversity, declines in air and water quality, and harm to public health, particularly in communities of color, which for decades have disproportionately shouldered the burden of toxic pollution in their neighborhoods.

The new rules are inconsistent with both the letter and spirit of NEPA. Far from achieving the administration’s stated purpose of “streamlining” NEPA, the changes unduly restrict agency decision-making on complex matters of critical importance to communities. They also sow greater uncertainty by upending established case law, policies, and procedures. This will lead to more confusion for regulated industries and the public, which will take years—if not decades—to resolve.

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