The Bad, the Ugly and the Good; The Trump Administration Proposes Changes to the National Environmental Policy Act

Posted on March 13, 2020 by Peter Van Tuyn

Benjamin Franklin wrote that “an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”  Just over 200 years later, the United States passed a law that put that sentiment into practice in the context of federal government decision-making that may impact an increasingly stressed environment.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) marked a turning point in our nation’s relationship with the environment, and it is based on the idea that if we take the time to understand the full effects of our decisions before we make them, we tend to make better decisions.  The Trump administration recently proposed changes to the Council on Environmental Quality’s NEPA regulations that, like its proposed changes to Endangered Species Act regulations, would institutionalize ignorance in federal decision-making that impacts the environment.  These proposed changes are bad, their origins ugly, and yet, fifty years after NEPA was signed into law, they also offer the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and informed decision-making.  In that sense the administration’s attempt to gut NEPA may turn out to be good. 

NEPA requires federal agencies to conduct in-depth analyses of the potential environmental, including human, impacts of “major federal actions that significantly affecting […] the environment.”   Under NEPA, federal agencies analyze the potential impacts of actions that they directly undertake, permit or fund, in order to determine if the potential impacts are significant.  If they are, the agencies must deeply and holistically analyze those impacts, consider alternatives that may have lesser impacts, and run their preliminary analyses through a ground-truthing, often enlightening and sometimes humbling, public review and comment process.  Only once these steps are done can the federal agency make its final decision.  This investment results in final decisions that tend to eliminate or at least minimize the impact of a proposed project on the environment

In myriad ways, the administration’s proposed changes would undercut these fundamental attributes of NEPA.   The proposal includes an attempt to limit the types of federal actions that trigger NEPA, to exclude, for example, the analysis of projects that may require multiple non-federal permits or have only partial federal funding.  The proposal would eliminate the requirement that cumulative effects of a proposed project be analyzed, despite CEQ’s own acknowledgement of the significance of such effects.  Further, using the same sleight of hand from the administration’s ill-considered proposal to change Endangered Species Act regulations, the proposal would exclude climate change from cumulative effects that must be analyzed.  The proposal also eliminates the requirement for review of the indirect effects of an action, such as downstream pollution impacts from an industrial activity.  In another provision rife with potential conflicts of interest, corporations could prepare their own impact analyses, a job now accomplished by the more objective federal agencies (though it is often paid for by corporations).  And the proposal limits public involvement in both time and substance, undercutting NEPA’s critical check against government (and in the future possibly corporate) myopathy or hubris.   

Senator Henry Jackson, upon the introduction of NEPA legislation in Congress, stated the following

The survival of man, in a world in which decency and dignity are possible, is the basic reason for bringing man’s impact on his environment under informed and responsible control. 

The CEQ proposals, individually, and dare I say cumulatively, would gut this vision, and finalizing them would be bad for people and our environment.

Further, the origins of the CEQ proposal appear to be downright ugly.  As one example, the British oil company BP lobbied the Trump administration to weaken NEPA as way to “benefit BP’s operations in the US” and, as reported, “clear[] the way for major infrastructure projects to bypass checks.”   And then, just a short while after the administration revealed its NEPA proposal, BP announced a new initiative aimed at reducing its environmental impact, with its CEO stating that “[t]he world does have a carbon budget, and it is running out fast.”  So on the one hand BP privately lobbies the United States to undercut this most fundamental of environmental laws, and with the other hand it publicly claims it will take action to address the environmental impacts from its operations.  How dreadful.

There is a silver lining in this dark cloud, however.  It exists in the renewed public discussion about the importance of facts to government decision-making, including those that some see as so inconvenient that they would rather not know them.  The groundswell of public opinion that led to Republican President Richard Nixon signing NEPA into law in 1970 will, I predict, result in a reaffirmation of the importance of NEPA and other environmental laws which this administration has sought to roll back, and the rollbacks will themselves be rolled back.  And that is for the greater good.

Presidential Memo to Boost Western Water Projects—Can it Succeed?

Posted on November 1, 2018 by Rick Glick

On October 19, President Trump issued a “Memorandum Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West.”  The Memorandum calls for streamlining federal water infrastructure development and operations, apparently by skirting environmental and other administrative processes.  As previously noted here, the Administration is intent on weakening the laws controlling federal water projects, but that cannot be accomplished by executive fiat alone.

At the core of the Memorandum is a directive to the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce to designate, within 30 days, “one official to coordinate the agencies’ [Endangered Species Act (ESA)] and [National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)] compliance responsibilities” and to “develop a proposed plan, for consideration by the Secretaries, to appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind any regulations or procedures that unduly burden the project beyond the degree necessary to protect the public interest or otherwise comply with the law.” 

This directive evinces a misapprehension of the legal framework, and continues a failed approach to regulatory change by shortcutting federal law.

First, Cabinet departments are not monolithic entities; they are made up of multiple sub-agencies, each with its own statutory guidelines.  Among others, Interior includes the Bureau of Reclamation, which builds and operates the water projects, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has responsibility for resident fish and terrestrial species.  BOR is the lead agency for NEPA, while the FWS is a reviewing agency of BOR’s work, and serves an independent consulting role under the ESA.  The only role of Commerce is through NOAA Fisheries, an agency within Commerce with responsibility for anadromous fish and marine mammals. 

While the agencies can and do coordinate to a certain extent, they have discrete legal functions and responsibilities.  A single officer to coordinate these disparate activities seems impracticable.

Second, the Administration’s overarching approach to loosening environmental rules is to rescind, suspend or delay implementation of environmental regulations that it believes impede the economy.  However, time and again the courts have found such actions to violate the Administrative Procedures Act or other statutes.  See, for example, the decision of a federal judge in South Carolina earlier this year invalidating “suspension” of the Waters of the U. S. (WOTUS) rule, or the D. C. Circuit’s rejection of extending the effective date of the Chemical Disaster Rule.  Implementation of the Memorandum is likely to meet the same fate.

Bringing efficiency to a convoluted, expensive and protracted process is a laudable goal, but one that has eluded previous administrations.  The problem is that the APA and the environmental protection laws are not designed for efficiency, but to make sure that the government has considered the potential impacts of its actions before implementation.  Without an act of Congress, efficiency gains will be at the margin.

LNG Global Impacts Not FERC’s Problem

Posted on July 11, 2016 by Rick Glick

In companion cases, on June 28 the DC Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in its environmental impacts analysis of two Gulf Coast LNG terminals, need not assess the potential for increased natural gas extraction and use, or market effects.  The first case deals with the Freeport project in Texas, and the second the Sabine Pass project in Louisiana; the court considered these cases in parallel with each other, and the Sabine Pass case follows the reasoning in the Freeport case.

 The Sierra Club and other national NGOs have attacked LNG facilities (1) for their potential to cause an increase in fracking to extract natural gas and the attendant emission of greenhouse gases, and (2) for increasing the use of U.S.- produced natural gas in world markets, which they assert will drive up the price of natural gas domestically, thus making coal more competitive and its use more prevalent in the U.S.  On this basis the Freeport and Sabine Pass plaintiffs argued that FERC’s failure to consider these potential effects violates the National Environmental Policy Act.  The court disagreed, finding that these effects are too attenuated for FERC to have to evaluate. 

Central to the cases is the fact that the Natural Gas Act confers exclusive authority over the export of natural gas on the Department of Energy, whereas FERC is only responsible for the siting of LNG facilities.  The court reasoned that FERC’s approval of LNG facilities are not the proximate cause of gas exports, which only DOE can approve.  Therefore, FERC need not consider environmental impacts related to market forces that could increase domestic production of gas and the use of gas outside of the United States.

 These same projects face challenges brought by the same NGOs against DOE in which the issue is whether DOE complied with NEPA in authorizing exports of LNG.  The Freeport and Sabine Pass courts “express no opinion” on the merits of the DOE cases.  Still, it seems that the relationship between export approvals and operation of global gas markets is at least as attenuated as FERC’s authorization to construct facilities.  My sense is that DOE will likely prevail there as well.

The National Environmental Policy Act: What Constitutes Segmentation and a “Direct” Environmental Impact?

Posted on February 14, 2014 by Thomas Hnasko

On February 11, 2013, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico denied a Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed by the Village of Logan, seeking to compel the Bureau of Reclamation (“BOR”) to perform an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) for the Ute Lake Diversion Project in eastern New Mexico. The BOR issued an environmental assessment (“EA”), which failed to analyze the foreseeable impacts to Ute Lake based on the design capacity of the intake structure to withdraw 24,000 acre-feet per year (“af/yr”). The BOR contended that, while contracts had been issued to deliver the full 24,000 af/yr of water, the project which it funded was limited to withdrawals from the lake of only 16,450 af/yr. Significantly, the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of 16,450 af/yr paled in comparison to the projected impacts resulting from withdrawals of 24,000 af/yr.

The briefs in the Tenth Circuit present an issue of first impression under NEPA. That is, can the BOR defer an analysis of certain impacts it knows will occur in the future, and summarily discuss those deleterious impacts under the rubric of “cumulative” rather than “direct” effects? According to the Department of Justice, Logan’s complaint about the matter is only one of “nomenclature,” and it should not matter whether the effects are deemed “direct” or “cumulative.” In response, Logan argues that the difference is one of substance, as an analysis of “cumulative” effects of a project does not require a comparison of the project to reasonably available alternatives, whereas an analysis of foreseeable “direct” effects, i.e., withdrawals up to the capacity of the intake structure, would require a vigorous comparison to available alternatives. These alternatives, which received only a one-half page discussion in the EA’s section on cumulative effects, include retirement of wasteful irrigation groundwater rights to augment municipal water supplies in eastern New Mexico. According to Logan, allowing the BOR to analyze a plainly foreseeable “direct” effect as merely “cumulative” would result in the illegal segmentation of the project. If such a result were sanctioned, there would be no NEPA analysis ever undertaken of the effects between 16,450 af/yr and 24,000 af/yr.

Oral argument is scheduled for March 17, 2014.