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Restoring National Environmental Policy Act Rules, One Step at a Time

Council on Environmental Quality begins the process of strengthening NEPA rules

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© Andy Casagrande/Ocean Image Bank

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is our country’s bedrock environmental law. It requires our federal government agencies to “look before they leap” when they consider major federal actions, like energy development projects, new infrastructure and even management plans for federal lands and waters.

Critically, NEPA also requires the government to consider and address public concerns about these projects. In fact, NEPA is often the only way communities can voice their opinion on federal projects that will impact their ocean, water, land and air. The public process and analysis required by NEPA’s help ensure decision-makers fully consider potential impacts of federal decisions on the environment—including our ocean and coasts—and the health of our communities.

The reviews and participation required under NEPA also help to highlight how many federal actions have a disproportionate impact on communities of color, low-income communities, Tribes and others. These groups have historically borne the brunt of impacts from projects that pollute water quality and air quality, desecrate sacred places and jeopardize resilience in the face of climate change. NEPA is an important tool in the fight for environmental justice.

Last summer, the rules that govern NEPA suffered a big setback.

In July 2020, the Trump administration significantly weakened the rules that control how federal agencies apply NEPA, putting polluting industries before the needs of our communities and our environment. Among other things, the changes to the NEPA rules:

  • Reduced opportunity for public input on major federal decisions, including those affecting our ocean and coasts;
  • Decreased the number of potentially damaging projects that will undergo environmental review, and
  • Allowed federal decision-making to ignore climate change when considering major projects, such as pipelines and highways.

The Trump administration’s decision to weaken NEPA rules was reckless and dangerous, and it made our communities more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and pollution.

The Biden administration has a two-step plan to restore protections.

The Trump-era changes did considerable damage to the rules that implement NEPA. Undoing all that damage will take time. To move as quickly as possible, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced a two-phase plan to restore the NEPA rules.

In the first phase—which is underway right now —CEQ plans to put back in place some of the most important parts of the original NEPA rules. Under the proposed changes, federal agencies would once again:

  • Have more leeway to consider the public interest when evaluating the purpose and need of proposed projects;
  • Be required to consider a broader range of impacts from proposed projects, including indirect and cumulative impacts; and
  • Be allowed to develop regulations that are even more protective than the CEQ baseline.

Phase two is scheduled for next year. In that phase, CEQ plans to address a broader range of problems and issues created by the 2020 Trump rollbacks. CEQ will also consider additional ways to improve the way federal agencies apply NEPA and evaluate the environmental impacts of major federal actions.

Voice your support for strong NEPA rules

Support strong NEPA regulations designed to protect people and the environment—including our ocean and coasts. Thank CEQ for taking immediate action to reverse the worst of the Trump-era rollbacks to NEPA regulations. And remind the agency that this is just the first step: It must do much more in the second phase of the process to ensure NEPA regulations align with the text and purpose of NEPA itself.

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