Christian Science Monitor  [Printer-friendly version]
November 28, 2005


A congressional group finishes public hearings on the law that
assesses impacts of federal projects.

[Rachel's introduction: While we've all been focused on Hurricane
Katrina, the Iraq War, and corporate scandals, "conservatives" in
Congress have been preparing to revise the National Environmental
Policy Act (NEPA), with its important precautionary provisions that
require alternatives assessment of large federal projects.]

By Brad Knickerbocker

The National Environmental Policy Act -- known as the Magna Carta of
US environmental laws -- is under intense political scrutiny.

For 35 years, NEPA has required that everything built or operated on
federal land that "significantly affects the quality of the human
environment" be scrutinized for its impact. Thousands of construction
projects and other ventures -- from highways, dams, and water projects
to military bases and oil drilling -- have been adjusted and in some
cases scrapped because of the law.

The requirements of this Nixon-era act have done much for
environmental protection, its supporters say. NEPA also has acted as a
"sunshine law," opening the political process involving such decisions
to all Americans through "environmental impact statements" allowing
for public comment.

But the law has also been the basis for hundreds of lawsuits, in
effect becoming a tool for activists to slow or kill many projects.
NEPA also has greatly added to the cost of public works, energy
development, and other beneficial projects, critics say. Most
recently, it has been charged, environmental lawsuits under NEPA
stymied US Army Corps of Engineers plans that might have lessened the
impact of hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

A congressional task has just ended a series of public hearings in
five states and Washington, D.C. Lawmakers heard from a range of
interests -- the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, the Women's
Mining Coalition, the Zuni Tribe, the Sierra Club, energy lobbyists,
and local officials. A report and recommendations from the task force
are expected shortly. It's unclear whether these will produce major
changes to NEPA, as some environmental activists fear, or merely
tweaks in the law.

Task force's marching orders

In either case, the working premise of the 20-member task force has
been made clear by its chairwoman: "What started as an overly vague
single-paragraph statute is now 25 pages of regulations, 1,500 court
cases, and hundreds of pending lawsuits that are blocking important
projects and economic growth," said Rep. Cathy McMorris (R) of
Washington. "Too often we are hearing horror stories about endless
reams of paper needed to complete the environmental impact

The law's supporters see it as a "look-before-you-leap" measure that
has brought about a new way of considering long-range environmental
impacts of things like river dredging, new power plants, and waste
disposal. In the case of New Orleans, environmentalists point out, the
US Army Corps of Engineers responded to a NEPA challenge (upheld by a
federal judge in 1977) by withdrawing its plan for new levees.
"Flooding would have been worse if the original proposed design had
been built," a Government Accountability Office official recently told
a House Appropriations subcommittee.

Though supporters of the existing NEPA may be outnumbered in Congress,
they have their champions. "Where critics see delay, I see
deliberation," Rep. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico said at the last task
force hearing Nov. 17. "Where they see postponed profits, I see public
input. Where they see frivolous litigation, I see citizens requiring
their government to live up to its responsibilities."

A big deal out West

The law, which covers natural resources on public land, has particular
impact on traditional Western industries -- ranching, logging, mining
- especially since the federal government controls much of the land in
Western states.

"I do not believe that NEPA was ever intended to halt natural-resource
use, sometimes to the detriment of natural resources, or to deprive
families and rural economies of livelihoods," Caren Cowan, executive
director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, told

One thing NEPA critics want is "categorical exclusions" for certain
activities that can impact the landscape -- fencing and water
facilities on Western rangeland, for example. "These activities have a
minimal impact on the land but can play a critical role in putting in
place a well- managed grazing program resulting in important benefits
for the resources," Idaho rancher Brenda Richards testified earlier
this month.

The Bush administration has already issued exclusions from full NEPA
review on grounds that some activities -- such as salvage logging
where wildfires have burned timber on federal land -- do not have
major environmental effects.

Such exclusions, said Michael Anderson of the Wilderness Society,
"greatly diminished public participation and environmental
consideration in federal land management."

In a recent letter to Representative McMorris, 10 former White House
officials who chaired or were general counsel of the President's
Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in five administrations (three
Republican and two Democratic) expressed the same concern.

James Connaughton, current CEQ chairman, attributed any problems to
the law's implementation. To resolve conflicts and head off lawsuits,
he said at the last task force meeting, his office is working with the
Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, "bringing parties
together to seek common ground and accept compromise."

Copyright 2005 The Christian Science Monitor