The White House has issued a plan for “rebuilding infrastructure in America,” but this proposal sacrifices the bedrock of environmental protection laws to polluting interests by gutting many provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA).
NEPA has been widely acknowledged as the most forward thinking environmental protection law in the world. Its passage and approval by President Nixon were a massive step forward for the environment, and more than 100 countries have used it as a model. For the first time, everyone from Federal land managers to private developers were legally compelled to conduct a uniform and full review of impacts to the environment for every development project. It compels scientific surveys to determine how developments impact wildlife, natural resources, pollution, and health of local residents over the long term. NEPA also requires the Federal Government, state and local agencies, private parties, and other partners to identify project alternatives that better coexist with the environment.
NEPA fundamentally changed the way we protect the places we love, and it has become the foundation for all environmental protections since, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Openlands has invoked NEPA in three instances as a last line of defense to save natural treasures, including the Kankakee River, the Fox River, and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Our success stemmed from the strength of the law, but that very strength is what the current administration looks to eradicate.
Under the infrastructure proposal, released on February 12, environmental reviews for projects would be consolidated under the agency that proposes them. This would create a system that merely rubber stamps controversial decisions like the Illiana Tollway and the Dakota Access Pipeline. The plan aims to eliminate the EPA’s ability to review the environmental impacts of a project under the Clean Air Act, an ability that has allowed the EPA to prevent harmful air pollution. It would allow some projects to opt-out of certain environmental protections altogether. And it would allow private developers to pay federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews of their projects, which is tantamount to bribery at the expense of public health and the environment. Going forward with any of these provisions would fundamentally weaken NEPA and erode the bedrock of our country’s environmental protections.
The infrastructure plan further attacks conservation policies by proposing that Federal agencies could sell off public lands without Congressional approval. It would allow the Secretary of the Interior to run pipelines through our National Parks and it would prevent the National Park Service or the Forest Service from determining whether conserved lands can be paved over for highway development. The plan seeks to decimate the EPA’s authority to enforce clean water protections by delegating many responsibilities to the states, which have far fewer resources to protect natural resources and reduce pollution.
Done correctly, infrastructure investment can provide secure jobs for American families and help to develop a low-carbon public transportation system. This plan from the White House comes nowhere close to these goals. Its proposals embrace the false choice that economic progress can only come at the expense of a clean environment, protected lands, and the basic rule of law – but we know the opposite is true.