Today the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released its blueprint to dismantle longstanding bedrock protections for communities, public lands, and wildlife. Designed to weaken the role of the public in service of extractive interests such as oil and gas companies, CEQ’s proposed rule is intended to empower federal agencies to advance the Trump administration’s reckless agenda against public lands and the climate.
“This proposed rule, if finalized, would exacerbate the climate crisis and is a reckless slap in the face to the American West’s communities and intertwined natural and cultural heritage,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center. “As a thinly-veiled response to several landmark court decisions brought about by WELC and other legal advocates mandating that the Trump administration account for the climate crisis, we will fight this proposal tooth and nail.”
“The Council on Environmental Quality’s NEPA regulations are the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to evaluating how a land management decision affects the environment,” said Susan Jane Brown, director of the Western Environmental Law Center’s Wildlands and Wildlife Program. “Unfortunately, CEQ’s proposed rule dramatically curtails the requirements to develop reasonable alternatives to a proposed action, assess the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of an agency’s action, and robustly engage the public in the management of our public lands. Research shows that better land management decisions are made when these requirements are faithfully followed. Weakening them will imperil the natural resources and values that are held in common by all Americans.”
While the proposed rule is riddled with vague, banal language, the devil is truly in the details. CEQ’s proposed rule, if finalized, would:
- Weaken the imperative for federal agencies to constructively use the NEPA process to protect, restore, and enhance the environment. This would embolden radical political agendas supported by extractive interests, such as fossil fuel companies.
- Attempt to avoid the federal government’s duty to take responsibility for the indirect or “downstream” effects of its actions, such as the effects to the environment and public health of burning coal, oil, and dirty natural gas extracted from federal public lands.
- Eliminate the duty of federal agencies to consider the cumulative impacts of their actions. Under the proposed rule, a federal agency could, for example, approve a new coal, oil, or natural gas extraction project without accounting for the climate or public health impacts of the project when combined with other existing or reasonably foreseeable fossil fuel projects approved by that agency.
- Weaken the responsibility of federal agencies to provide a clear basis for choice by the agency and the public by rigorously and objectively considering reasonable alternatives, in particular those alternatives proposed by the public.
- Chill the ability of the public to hold agencies accountable to the law by requiring the public to post a monetary bond prior to seeking administrative review.
- Allow federal agencies to decline to undertake environmental analysis if the agency believes that analysis conflicts with other laws. For example, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest has long (and wrongly) argued that NEPA and other laws like the Endangered Species Act do not apply to the Oregon & California lands in southwest Oregon because of those lands’ unique multiple use statutory direction.
- Allow project proponents to undertake environmental analysis of the proposed project even if there is a conflict of interest between the project proponent and protection of the environment.
- Provide virtually unbridled authority to federal agencies to determine whether impacts are sufficiently significant to warrant an environmental impact statement is required. Existing regulations include specific criteria that must be used in making this determination, including where a proposed action involves highly controversial, highly uncertain, or unknown risks or would risk significant impacts to unique resources such as Wild and Scenic Rivers or Wilderness Areas.
“These proposed rules are rigged in favor of Wall Street executives, fossil fuel companies, and other interests who would despoil the West’s heritage in service of profit and power,” added Erik Schlenker-Goodrich. “Rather than improve the effectiveness of the NEPA process, CEQ’s proposed rule will do little but sow confusion. It is a reckless mistake that the Trump administration—and the special interests that persuaded the administration to propose this rule—may prove to regret.”