1. Update
  2. Environment & Energy

NEPA: The Most Important Law You’ve Never Heard Of

By Alicia Cannon, January 21, 2020


On Jan. 9, President Trump proposed significant changes to the landmark National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These changes would allow government projects to move ahead without first reviewing environmental impacts.

NEPA is the safeguard that forbids the government and polluting industries from starting projects that pollute our environment, harm our health, and exacerbate climate change. While President Trump characterizes NEPA as a “burdensome federal approval process,” it is essential in ensuring environmental and public health protections. Through NEPA, environmental reviews are conducted for major federal infrastructure projects and plans from polluting industries that could contaminate our air or water.

What are the changes?

Currently, all major federal construction projects must have an environmental review if they could have major effects on the surrounding environment. The Trump administration proposal would narrowly redefine “major effects” and create a “non-major” category that allows projects to bypass the review process.

NEPA uplifts frontline communities by allowing individuals to hold the government accountable through the public comment process. Making the comment process more difficult silences these voices.

Under the new proposal, those projects requiring an environmental review would have a shorter review period. A comprehensive environmental review can take six years or more; these changes would limit the review to two years for larger projects and just one year for small projects.

Furthermore, the reports would not be required to address the “cumulative” effects of new projects, meaning their contribution to climate change. Removing climate change considerations could mean an unchecked increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the approval of poorly designed infrastructure projects that cannot withstand climate impacts, requiring costly future fixes.

In its current form, NEPA allows individuals to give feedback to projects in their own communities. The Trump administration’s changes would make it more difficult for the average person to submit comments, by requiring that comments are accompanied by data and additional sources.

This specific aspect of the proposal is particularly detrimental for frontline communities. Polluting industries are more likely to be located in low-income communities and communities of color, harming their health and well-being. NEPA uplifts frontline communities by allowing individuals to hold the government accountable through the public comment process. Making the comment process more difficult silences these voices.

What happens now?

Like past regulatory rollbacks by the Trump administration, the NEPA proposal will face extensive legal battles. However, many businesses and labor groups are already rallying behind the new proposal. We have limited time to mobilize and oppose this proposal through the public comment period, which ends March 10.

We need your help in stopping this disastrous change from taking effect. Tell the Trump administration that NEPA is fundamental to protecting our environment, public health, and right to public participation. We cannot allow for our overall well-being to be compromised for the sake of streamlining federal projects.

Alicia Cannon

  • Program Assistant, Sustainable Energy and Environment

Alicia is the Program Assistant for Sustainable Energy and Environment. She advocates for the preservation of the environment, recognition of climate change, and the enactment of legislation that promotes sustainable solutions to our current climate crisis. She meets members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to promote FCNL’s environmental policy.