One of Our Most Important Environmental Laws Just Turned 50—Cue Trump Attacking It
By Jeff Turrentine
To celebrate the 50th birthday of one of America's most important environmental laws, President Trump has decided to make a mockery out of it.
On the first day of January 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In doing so, he formally acknowledged that the federal government bears a responsibility to "assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings," and moreover that "each generation [serves] as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations." While other important environmental laws of the era were about protecting specific natural resources, such as water or air or biodiversity, NEPA was about establishing a covenant between the American people and its elected officials. Its wording makes clear that the government is "to use all practicable means" to achieve the goal of ensuring a clean, safe environment.
In practice, NEPA is the law that compels the federal government to consider the environmental consequences of any major project that it hopes to undertake. This is where the "practicable means" known as an environmental impact statement (EIS) comes in. As its name suggests, an EIS is a report, typically a large and thorough one, that examines the potential environmental impacts of a proposed project from all conceivable angles. So well regarded is the concept underlying NEPA — simply put, that governments owe it to their citizens to study the risks of doing something before they do it — that more than 160 nations have adopted similar standards for environmental review, leading many to call NEPA the Magna Carta of environmental law.
Last week, 50 years and eight days after Nixon signed NEPA into law, Trump announced his intention to shatter this covenant between the government and the governed. His administration is proposing changes to NEPA that would dramatically reduce the length and scope of the environmental review process, let polluting industries "review" themselves, limit input from the American public, exempt many infrastructure projects from review altogether, and — perhaps most disturbingly — allow agencies to ignore the fact that certain projects would contribute to climate change. Any one of the proposed changes would be a cause for concern. Taken together, they add up to an unconscionable hollowing-out of NEPA and a wholesale abandonment of the principle at its foundation.
The president's ostensible reason for gutting NEPA is to speed up the process for building out America's infrastructure — think roads, bridges, dams, airports, sewer systems and railroad tracks, but don't forget that the category also includes mines, offshore drilling rigs and oil pipelines. According to the administration, the current review system is too drawn out, too expensive and otherwise so onerous that it's suppressing much-needed construction and holding America back. Our country's infrastructure, President Trump told reporters last week, "used to be the envy of the world, and now we're like a third-world country. It's really sad." To sell the idea that infrastructure projects are somehow being (in his words) "tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process," he asserted that "it can take more than 10 years to build just a very simple road. And usually you're not able to even get the permit."
That would indeed be a serious problem in need of immediate fixing, were it true.
It is not. But the good news is that if Trump is sincerely interested in discovering the truth, it's right there to be found in his own executive branch! According to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the NEPA-created agency that oversees the review process, nearly 95 percent of the more than 50,000 federal projects that are subject to environmental review annually are granted a categorical exclusion — meaning that they've been deemed so low-risk that they can proceed with only a minimal version of review. Less than 1 percent of all projects are considered risky enough to merit a full-on EIS. And the average amount of time it takes these projects to complete the EIS is less than five years. As to the question of expense, a 2003 NEPA report determined that an EIS typically cost anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million: not chump change, perhaps, but hardly bank-breaking given the contingency budgets of most large-scale infrastructure projects.
So why, then, would President Trump paint such a misleading picture of NEPA and seek to place new caps on the size and scope of environmental reviews?
Because polluting industries — the chemical and fossil fuel industries, in particular — want him to. In November an ad hoc group of industry-affiliated organizations sent a letter to CEQ Chair Mary Neumayr, asking her to "modernize" NEPA along the very lines that the president proposed just seven weeks later. Among the letter's 34 signatories were some conspicuous names: the American Chemistry Council, the American Coke and Coal Chemicals Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. (Other signatories included groups representing the lumber, mining and fertilizer industries.)
One portion of the November letter stands out for the masterful way that it couches a genuinely menacing request in the gentlest of language. "NEPA provides important safeguards to ensure that major federal actions and approvals carefully consider environmental impacts," the signatories acknowledge. "We believe however, the scope of NEPA analysis should be focused on information specifically related or consequential to the federal action at hand, as opposed to an overly broad and exhaustive analysis of all issues, without regard to significance."
How happy those writers must have been, then, to come across this sentence in the Trump administration's proposal: Effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain. Under current NEPA rules, a project's potential for contributing to climate change — the ultimate "product of a lengthy causal chain" — is absolutely worthy of consideration in deciding whether a project warrants review. But this requirement has proved to be a major hindrance to the developers and users of one type of project in particular: oil and gas infrastructure, the pipelines and refineries that transport, store, or process those dirty fossil fuels that, when burned, release the gases that are dangerously warming our world.
Polluting industries asked for a new, weaker NEPA. And now the Trump administration is trying to give it to them — even if that means reneging on a 50-year-old promise to the American people and endangering future generations all over the world.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ruby Russell and Ajit Niranjan
Hamstrung by coronavirus lockdowns, frustrated school strikers have spent months staging digital protests against world leaders failing to act urgently on climate change.
Pandemic Stalls Protests<p>Last November, the head of the UN Environment Program was among the public and scientific figures to warn that 2020 offered a last chance to cut emissions. Then, few could have suspected this deadline would coincide with an unprecedented public health emergency.</p><p>The pandemic has <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/tough-times-ahead-for-climate-protesters-during-corona-pandemic/a-52978469" target="_blank">dealt climate activism a blow</a>. Niedeggen says that as a movement demanding that the world act on scientific advice, the school strikers took lockdown restrictions extremely seriously, halted public protests immediately and took their activism online.</p><p>On April 24, Fridays for Future organized a "digital strike," with Niedeggen hosting a that racked up close to a quarter of a million views. "We were not physically standing together, but we were all fighting together," she says.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-strikers-get-inventive-during-the-covid-19-crisis-fridays-for-future/a-53229262" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Activists also gathered thousands of placards</a> from across Germany to lay out in front of the German Bundestag around the central slogan: "Fight every crisis."</p>
Opportunity for a New Normal<p>Last September's Global Climate Strike drew young and old protestors around the world, with organizers estimating a global turnout of 7.6 million, including an estimated 270,000 people in Berlin. Activists have adjusted this year's event to account for social distancing and different levels of coronavirus restrictions in cities taking part.</p><p>They say COVID-19 also presents opportunities.</p><p>"The pandemic shows that we can change our normal daily life, and we are very able to adjust to a situation of crisis," she says. The key question is how economies get back on their feet: "We have the possibility to build a new normal, to build a renewable world order, and an environmentally just, climate-just normal for everybody."</p><p>In July, Jeng was among 20 female Fridays for Future activists from the Global South to sign an open letter to G20 finance ministers warning that their decisions in "exclusive backrooms" over stimulus packages and corporate bailouts would "lock in development pathways for decades."</p><p>"The system is not broken, it was built to be unjust. We don't need recovery, we need a reboot," the letter reads, stressing that "black people, indigenous peoples and people of color," have been disproportionately hit by the economic, climate and coronavirus crises. </p>
Policy 'Not Quite There Yet'<p>Figures on stimulus spending do not suggest their words had much impact. The ministers were criticized for failing to relieve the debt of poorer countries, and according to <a href="https://www.energypolicytracker.org/region/g20/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Policy Tracker</a>, G20 countries by August had pledged $169 billion (142 billion euros) to fossil fuels since the beginning of the pandemic.</p><p>Katrin Uba, associate professor of political science at Uppsala University in Sweden, is researching Fridays for Future. She says that despite the movement raising awareness and gaining access to policymakers, real policy change "is not there yet."</p><p>Still, she stresses that social movements go through waves of mobilization as public attention on their core issues ebbs and flows. And perhaps one of Fridays for Future's biggest achievements is birthing a politically active generation that will keep the fight up long after corona becomes a memory. </p><p>"We know clearly from our research that many of the people who came to the streets hadn't done any protesting before in their lives," she told DW. "And we also know that if you do one protest, you are likely to do more."</p>
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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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