Critical Protections Restored for NEPA, the Nation’s Bedrock Environmental Law

October 8, 2021 | 3:59 pm
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

Some good news. Score one for climate justice! Earlier this week, the Biden administration restored some critical protections to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), our nation’s bedrock environmental law—provisions that had been eliminated by the previous administration. (For a refresher on NEPA and the previous assault on this critical environmental safeguard, see here.) 

And just in time, as Congress deliberates and hopefully approves a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and passes a budget reconciliation bill that modernizes our electrical grid, invests in clean electricity and clean transportation, and helps ensure that we build for the future. A future that must be prepared to address the unavoidable impacts of climate change and the critical need for a climate-resilient infrastructure. (Learn more about these two congressional issues, or more specifics on reconciliation here, here, here, and here.)

Changes address climate and pollution impacts

Safeguards restored by the White House Office Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in its proposed changes include:

  • The requirement that federal agencies evaluate all environmental impacts of their permitting decisions – direct, indirect, and cumulative effects. This includes climate change. It’s a big deal.
  • Full authority of agencies to work with communities to develop alternative approaches to projects and minimize impacts. 
  • NEPA regulations will be a floor rather than a ceiling for environmental review standards.

Importantly, the new rule reverses the previous administration’s pernicious change that required alternatives considered in the NEPA review be focused on the interests of the applicant (i.e., the developer), not on the interests of the community.  Finalizing this rule will re-center the public interest. 

CEQ also announced its plan for a second phase of changes to NEPA regulations, including a much-needed focus on environmental justice. This is a MUST DO. For too long, Black, Brown, Native American and poor communities have suffered the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and social impacts of climate change, air and water pollution, and the systemic racism that is at the root of the problem. 

Your voice is needed

The proposed rule has been published in the Federal Register, which opens a 45-day public comment period. Two online public hearings are scheduled: October 19, 1-4pm ET, and October 21, 5-8pm ET.

We need to show strong public support for these changes, even as we push for further efforts to break the back of environmental injustice and address the climate crisis. Please—stand up, show up, write in, and make your voices heard. For more on how to participate in the public comment process, see our Resources for Participating in Federal Rulemaking.