On January 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It requires the federal government to assess the environmental impact for infrastructure projects that are funded or regulated by the federal government. NEPA, which began ostensibly as an attempt to mitigate harm to the environment, has morphed over the decades into the single greatest obstacle to the building of infrastructure in the United States.
Both Republicans and Democrats have recognized its many flaws and called for NEPA’s reform, to no avail. But on January 9, 2020, almost fifty years to the day after Nixon signed NEPA into law, President Trump announced the first comprehensive reform of NEPA in over thirty years. His overhaul of NEPA promises to significantly reduce red tape (or rather, “green tape”) and speed up the building of much-needed roads, pipelines, bridges, tunnels, power plants, and transmission lines.
NEPA reform was a long time coming. Unreasonable environmental regulation has had a stranglehold on development that has almost put a stop to big infrastructure projects necessary for a growing and prosperous society.
The story of one of America’s most well-known public works projects, the Hoover Dam, illustrates the problem. No country had ever built a dam of that size before, and many of the technologies required for its construction had to be developed from scratch. No single construction company had the know-how to build it, so the government gave the contract to a consortium aptly called “Six Companies.” Congress authorized the project in 1928 and construction began in 1931. The dam opened in 1936—only eight years from approval to finish—under budget and two years ahead of schedule.
In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act to build an interstate highway network. Within about ten years, the United States built 41,000 miles of road at the cost of $25 billion. The California Legislature authorized the Golden Gate Bridge in 1928, construction began in 1933, and the bridge was completed four years later in 1937, under budget and ahead of schedule.
In contrast, when Colorado proposed a 12-mile expansion of I-70 in Denver, the Environmental Impact Statement took 13 years to complete and ran 8,951 pages (plus 7,307 pages of appendices). Environmental review of Maryland’s light-rail Purple Line took ten years and 9,225 pages.1 Raising the roadway for the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey (a modification of an existing structure with virtually no environmental impact) entailed a 5,000-page environmental assessment and required 47 permits from 19 agencies over five years.2
The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad desalination plant in San Diego, first proposed in 1993, began the permitting process in 2003 and only began construction in 2012, nearly ten years and five lawsuits later. The $1 billion facility produced its first gallon of water in December 2015, twenty-two years after the beginning of the project.
According to the Council on Environmental Quality, the average environmental review of a single infrastructure project takes nearly five years and includes an Environmental Impact Statement that averages over 600 pages. Such delay coupled with frivolous lawsuits by environmentalists and other special interest groups effectively prevents the construction of necessary infrastructure. Many of America’s iconic roads, tunnels, and bridges—most of which were built before NEPA—could not be built today thanks to bureaucratic “green tape.”
Conservatives are not alone in wanting to reform NEPA. There is a broad consensus that NEPA assessments needlessly delay infrastructure projects. Already President Carter issued an executive order requiring Environmental Impact Statements to be “concise, clear, and to the point.” The Clinton administration complained against the “length of NEPA processes, the extensive detail of NEPA analyses, and the sometimes confusing overlay of other laws and regulations.”3 In 2012, President Obama issued an executive order to reform the federal permitting process and reduce the time for producing NEPA assessments.
Decades of delays for infrastructure causes greater harm to the environment. Highways in need of widening create more traffic congestion, which wastes more gasoline as vehicles spend more time stopped in traffic. Old, inefficient power lines waste up to 6% of all electricity produced and the equivalent of 200 coal-fired power plants. Lack of pipelines obliges companies to transport oil and natural gas by less fuel-efficient trucks or trains. Decrepit water pipes leak 2.1 trillion gallons of drinking water per year. Old sewer pipes leak 850 billion gallons of waste into America’s waterways every year.4
Delays also increase the overall cost of a project. According to the group Common Good, a decade-long permitting and review procedure more than doubles the cost of new infrastructure. Each year of delay increases the overall cost of the project by between 10 and 15 percent.
Most importantly, poor infrastructure costs lives. More than half of vehicle fatalities in the United States are caused in part by poor road conditions.
President Trump’s proposed rule would make two changes to NEPA. First, it would set time limits for the completion of environmental reviews. Comprehensive Environmental Impact Statements must be completed within two years, and lesser assessments in one year. A bureaucracy will no longer spend ten years or more on an assessment.
Second, the changes would eliminate language that requires environmental assessments to evaluate a project’s “cumulative impact.” This broad, undefined concept has led to assessments calculating the impact of an oil pipeline project on, say, global sea levels, or the effects of a new highway on global average temperatures by 2050. The Environmental Impact Statement for the above-mentioned Bayonne Bridge improvement project, for example, included assessing the impact of the bridge improvements on all historic buildings within a two-mile radius. Such an open-ended definition of environmental “impact” is an invitation for endless delays.
NEPA is just one of many factors that delay and increase the cost of infrastructure projects. State environmental regulations, union labor rules, frivolous lawsuits, and NIMBYism all play a role in preventing the construction of necessary infrastructure. But the President’s reform will undoubtedly go a long way to speeding up the building of roads, bridges, pipelines, and tunnels that America needs.
Despite broad bipartisan support for NEPA reform going back decades, many leftists and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club criticized the President’s changes. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the rule change “illegal” and about “giving polluters more political power and protecting them from public scrutiny.”5 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that NEPA reform would mean that “more polluters will be right there next to the water supply of our children. That’s a public health issue that they’re – and their denial of climate – they’re going to not use the climate issue as anything to do with environmental decision-making.”6
Liberals and environmental groups oppose NEPA reform not because they want to minimize pollution, but because they oppose new infrastructure in principle. Green groups have been at the forefront of the fight to block construction of new dams, roads, and other man-made structures and eliminate existing ones.
A recent article in The Guardian from the UK by Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, echoed the ideology of many green activists when he defended “de-development.” For him, the solution to our environmental “crisis” is to dismantle our economic prosperity and free-market economic system and replace it with a centrally-planned, subsistence economy. Indeed, economist Peter Edward argues that:
“…[I]nstead of pushing poorer countries to ‘catch up’ with rich ones, we should be thinking of ways to get rich countries to ‘catch down’ to more appropriate levels of development. We should look at societies where people live long and happy lives at relatively low levels of income and consumption not as basket cases that need to be developed towards western models, but as exemplars of efficient living.”7
Which countries does he propose we imitate? Cuba, of course. Cuban per capita economic output is only one-seventh of the United States, “right at the threshold of ecological sustainability.”
President Obama’s science czar John Holdren was even more explicit. In a 1973 book he co-authored with Paul Ehrlich titled Human Ecology: Problems & Solutions, Holdren wrote:
“A massive campaign must be launched to restore a high-quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States. De-development means bringing our economic system (especially patterns of consumption) into line with the realities of ecology and the global resource situation.”8
We must, therefore, eliminate our “dominant model of economic progress” to save the planet. New infrastructure only perpetuates this model. NEPA abuse has been a powerful tool of environmentalists to destroy it and “de-develop” the United States. The Trump administration deserves credit for dealing a serious blow to this destructive practice.