Environmental groups praised the Biden administration's announcement on Tuesday that it had finalized a federal rule that will restore key portions of the National Environmental Policy Act that were removed by the Trump administration.
NEPA will once again require that the climate impact of major construction projects be considered and that communities affected by those projects have input before federal agencies approve them.
A White House statement quoted the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Brenda Mallory, who said: "Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict, and help ensure that projects get built right the first time. Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help projects get built faster, be more resilient, and provide greater benefits to people who live nearby."
"We are encouraged to see the Biden administration take action to restore this bedrock environmental protection," Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club's national director of policy, advocacy, and legal, said in a statement. "NEPA plays a critical role in keeping our communities and our environment healthy and safe, and Donald Trump's attempts to weaken NEPA were clearly nothing more than a handout to corporate polluters."
Earthjustice also praised the Biden administration, noting in a statement, "The Biden administration is taking key steps to reverse the damage of the Trump administration and restore essential environmental protections under NEPA."
The Natural Resources Defense Council notes:
NEPA has empowered citizens and demanded government accountability for more than 40 years. In many cases, NEPA gives citizens their only opportunity to voice concerns about a project's impact on their community. When the government undertakes a major project such as constructing a dam, highway, or power plant, it must ensure that the project's impacts -- environmental and otherwise -- are considered and disclosed to the public.
Thanks to this law, hundreds of millions of Americans have participated in important federal decisions. We are able to know the risk a government project or practice could pose to our community or health because of NEPA -- and we are guaranteed a voice.
The website Protect NEPA provides examples of the successful application of NEPA protections: For instance, during the planning of a project to widen Route 93 in Montana, NEPA allowed for the involvement of citizen groups and the government of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in the design process. They were able to force the Montana Department of Transportation to conduct environmental reviews of the project's potential impacts, leading to a final design that addressed concerns about wetlands in the area as well as about the safety of the roads for the tribal communities nearby.
The act has been championed by activists advocating on behalf of Black and Latino communities that have historically been disproportionately affected by the effects of pollutants.
"Without NEPA's critical protections for clean air and water, communities, particularly Black and brown communities, will be increasingly vulnerable to serious health complications from pollution and more susceptible to illnesses," the Rev. Ezra Tillman of First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Flint, Michigan, wrote in a November 2020 opinion column.
Trump publicly announced his intention to gut NEPA at a White House event in January 2020: "We will not stop until our nation's gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again. It used to be the envy of the world, and now we're like a third-world country. It's really sad."
The announcement followed secret meetings in 2017, Trump's first year in office, between officials he had appointed at the Department of the Interior and state, county, and local government officials on the best way to weaken environmental rules in order to speed the process of approval for such projects as the construction of mines, pipelines, and highways.
Throughout his presidency, Trump frequently promised that he would get an infrastructure bill through Congress and enacted, but it never happened.
Meanwhile, belying Trump's claims that environmental rules were an obstacle to infrastructure development, Congress under Joe Biden passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which Biden signed into law in November. Simultaneously, Biden has advocated for a return to policies focused on reducing climate emissions, including rejoining the Paris Agreement and using the Environmental Protection Agency to take action focused on reducing pollution in minority communities.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.