The Point of NEPA

June 1, 2023
The environmental policy is supposed to be a challenge

By Jack Allen, Contributing Author

President John F. Kennedy famously said: “We choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

The people who delivered the moon knew it would be difficult but were willing to put in years of hard work for a distant reward—unlike those who look to water down National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to an approval stamp.

NEPA was not meant to be easy. It is hard at times because: 1) maybe the action proposed is a bad idea; 2) maybe the action’s impacts are too detrimental to society; or 3) it holds us accountable to actions that will resonate for future generations.

Perhaps it’s good that NEPA is hard because it requires us to consider our children and their children in balancing an acceptable “now” for ourselves.

Yet, people often say: NEPA takes too long; NEPA costs too much; it’s a bunch of red tape. There is not a shred of real evidence of these complaints. It takes too long and costs too much for who? For those who hope to make a substantial profit from the action desired.

It’s been heard many times: an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that takes five to six years is too long. Really? Why?

Between 1970 and 1978, someone arbitrarily decided an EIS should take three years. There was no logic. Since then, the collective has been trying to do the EIS process in three years with little success. Perhaps three years was never enough.

What about the arguments they cost too much and hurt the economy? On average, an EIS is less than 2% of total project cost. Is 2% too much of an investment for future generations? And the “long time” it takes to complete an EIS process hurts the economy? One transportation EIS delivered in the southwest took 17 years. During that time, the region’s economy grew the fastest in the country — even during the mid-2000s recession.

NEPA is despised because it is a process that is a cost with no publicized tangible monetary benefit. That 17-year EIS? It led to cost reductions to the taxpayer and more timely delivery once construction started. The apparent lack of monetary benefit? NEPA and related policy creates jobs for registered voters to the tune of $26 billion averaged annually.

I am not aware of a single transportation agency that has been unable to deliver its annual program since NEPA’s inception because of NEPA.

NEPA is misunderstood. The term “environment” reflects the human environment – more so than the natural environment. And the “environment” is roughly 10-15% of the factors considered in making better and more informed decisions.

We commonly hear, “we have enough regulation today.” But regulations are passed for a reason, and when they are removed, accidents happen. Water gets contaminated. Trains carrying toxic chemicals derail. The roads and bridges construction industry shouldn’t make the same mistakes as other industries. Rebuilding our infrastructure is important, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of risking the environment and human life.

Think of NEPA as a gift. Where else are deliverers of major infrastructure given a repeatable process (inputs will vary) leading to a defensible outcome, one that gives confidence in the project delivery. NEPA levels the playing field. The designer isn’t always right.

EIS process delivery is done because an action proposed has the potential to cause significant adverse impact on the surrounding human, physical, and natural environments. Consider that 0.1% of all proposed actions warrant analysis under the EIS process. And that number — 0.1% — is diminishing.

Considering those in which the project will be placed will have to interact with that action beyond the foreseeable future, then it goes without saying EIS process delivery should measure the best of our energies and skills.

Under this pretext, difficulties and challenges are the norm; it is supposed to be hard. R&B 

Jack Allen has built environmental sciences and planning practices for four regional and national A/E leading firms in the United States. He is a recognized national expert as a NEPA practitioner and analyst with over 38 years in social/human and natural sciences, strategic regulatory planning, and process and program management.

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