By Sam Schipani
Since the early days of his campaign for president, Donald Trump has been promising to make major investments in infrastructure. While the president has not been able to push his $1.5 trillion infrastructure package through Congress, during the past few months lawmakers have moved forward with small pieces of legislation aimed at improving infrastructure, including a water infrastructure bill that recently passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Legislation to improve infrastructure often enjoys support from both sides of the aisle, but environmental groups have been keeping a close eye on the Republican House to see whether these bills will sneak in any the president's proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA.
NEPA is one of the United States' bedrock environmental laws, and enjoyed broad bipartisan support when President Nixon signed it into law on Jan. 1, 1970. At its core, NEPA's mandate is simple: the federal government is required to look before it leaps into big infrastructure projects by considering potential environmental impacts and keeping the public informed throughout the development process.
Critics of NEPA paint the law as an impossible hurdle to development that has been "weaponized" by environmentalists, and claim that reforming it will cut the red tape that's in the way of important infrastructure projects. Supporters counter that over the past 50 years, NEPA has given Americans a voice to speak up against potential government mismanagement and haphazard infrastructure projects that could impact their communities. According to Earthjustice, as many around 180 pieces of legislation have been introduced over the past six years seeking to attack, undermine, weaken or waive NEPA protections.
When the government proposes a new dam or road—or when a private company seeks to build a project like a pipeline that needs a federal permit— NEPA requires the federal agency associated with the project to take several steps before breaking ground. First, the developer (whether public or private) is required to conduct a study detailing how the project will be built; the potential consequences of the project; alternative ways to develop the project that will achieve the same goal; and any measures that can be taken to lessen harmful impacts of the project. Then, the agency must hold public hearings and involve local experts in the project's development. Finally, unless the project qualifies for a "categorical exclusion" because of its low impact, the government needs to circulate one of two kinds of reports: an environmental impact statement (EIS) for actions with potentially significant impacts and public controversy, or an environmental assessment (EA) for projects where the impacts are less controversial.
Although the Council on Environmental Quality manages the implementation of NEPA (a job made significantly more difficult since its staff were kicked out of their headquarters early last year), the public is the true overseer of the NEPA process. Except in California, NEPA does not necessarily require that the least environmentally harmful course of action be taken, but rather requires that the public be involved with the decision-making process.
"It's a really key part of our democracy," said Scott Slesigner, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There is an expectation that when the government is going to affect your life, particularly in a local community, you should have a say."
Historically, NEPA has not only prevented development that would hurt communities, but has also helped the federal government to create more effective infrastructure with the help of local knowledge. Every state can claim a success story from NEPA, and often projects are improved after a NEPA review. For example, when seismic testing was proposed for oil and gas leases in the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Southwestern Colorado, citizens groups were able to use NEPA to work with the Bureau of Land Management to design an exploration project that enabled lessees to obtain the seismic information they needed while avoiding the land's most significant cultural features and fragile habitats. Residents of small Virginia towns in the Blue Ridge foothills used the public involvement afforded by NEPA to create a less expensive plan for a highway set to pass through their town, including more aesthetically pleasing features that reduced speeding and promoted pedestrian safety.
"Because these people are local, they can make suggestions that improve the project itself and do so with less environmental and economic impact," Slesinger said.
While the NEPA process does take time, the dramatic delays held up by NEPA opponents are a red herring swimming in misinformation. In his 2018 State of the Union Address, President Trump claimed that such reviews stall infrastructure projects like "a simple road" for 10 years. But according to a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office, less than one percent of projects require the most time-consuming level of NEPA review—an EIS—and even then, the average time to complete these reviews is less than five years. NEPA is designed to streamline the process in line with a project's impacts, as well as speed projects along for emergency situations. Approximately 95 percent of federal projects that require environmental review qualify for categorical exclusions that allow them to bypass such rigorous review.
Besides being a handy proxy for opposition to any kind environmental regulation, Slesigner said NEPA opponents often use it as a "scapegoat" or "diversion" when infrastructure projects are not able to secure sufficient funding. A 2016 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury analyzed 40 significant transportation and water projects whose completion had slowed or stalled and found that "a lack of public funding [was] by far the most common factor hindering [their] completion." Delays resulting from environmental review and permitting were identified as a challenge to completing less than a quarter of the projects. Similar studies by the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Water Works Association, and National Waterways Foundation, also found lack of funding—not environmental review or permitting—to be a major barrier to infrastructure development.
Nevertheless, the attacks on NEPA continue. A recent Interior Department directive limits Interior agency reviews to 150 pages and one year to decide on all but the most complex projects, which NEPA supporters say rushes sufficient analysis and cuts essential time for public input.
With all of the movement on infrastructure policy in Congress, environmental groups are right to have an eye on NEPA. Local communities may be wise to join such vigilance—after all, it's their voice at stake.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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