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.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.