Democrats Should Halt Changes to Environmental Law

By Rupert Cutler

Once upon a time in America, Republicans led the way in science-based initiatives to protect the environment. For example:

•           The Morrill Act created land grant colleges to teach agricultural science. Ours is Virginia Tech, where an entire college is devoted to the study of natural resources and the environment and agriculture majors study environmental restoration and agro-environmental stewardship. The Morrill Act was signed by Republican Abraham Lincoln.

•           Our national parks, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, have been called “America’s best idea.” Republican Theodore Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments on more than 230 million acres of public land.

•           The Magna Carta of our nation’s environmental laws is the National Environmental Policy Act. Its purpose is “to declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment and to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment.”

Republican Richard Nixon signed this Act into law and soon afterward created the Environmental Protection Agency.

The National Environmental Protection Act requires the preparation of an environmental impact statement for federal projects such as highways, pipelines, dams, mines on public land, and timber sales that are done with federal funds or with a federal permit. The statement must include alternatives, describe cumulative impacts (such as climate change), and be subject to public review and comment. It gives United States citizens a voice in every federal road, housing project, airport or major infrastructure development.

It is a “look before you leap” law that was badly needed. In the 1950s and ‘60s federal urban renewal and highway construction were destroying neighborhoods (like Gainsboro in Roanoke), dams were flooding parks, mines were polluting rivers, and clear-cut timber sales were devastating forests in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and throughout the West.

In remarks released as he signed NEPA at his “Western White House’ in San Clemente, California on January 1, 1970, Mr. Nixon stated that the country would have to work in a bipartisan fashion on the environment “because it is now or never.” And his State of the Union speech to Congress on January 22, 1970, included an environmental theme. Said the Republican president:

“Shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water? Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.”

Fast forward to today. The “new” position of the Republican Party on protecting the environment — that it is less important than corporate profits — was evident in the story under the July 16 Roanoke Times headline, “Conservation law curbed to speed project permits.”

On July 15, President Donald Trump purposefully weakened the regulation governing the enforcement of the National Environmental Policy Act. Trump declared in Atlanta when he announced the new rule that “mountains and mountains of red tape” and lengthy permit processes have held up major infrastructure projects across the country.

The weakened rule will allow agencies to develop categories of activities that do not require an environmental assessment at all. It will free federal agencies from having to consider the impacts of infrastructure projects on climate change. It does so by eliminating the need for agencies to analyze a project’s indirect or “cumulative” effects on the environment and specifying they are only required to analyze “reasonably foreseeable” impacts.

The change will have an outsized impact on low-income neighborhoods. It is a critical tool for civil rights. The polluting effects of a new toxic waste incinerator or pipeline compressor station or highway bringing heavy traffic cannot be considered in isolation in neighborhoods that already have high numbers of industrial sites.

Writing in The New York Times, Lisa Friedman observed that the final rule “is not likely to be safe from the Congressional Review Act. Under this law, Congress can overturn a federal agency’s rule-making within 60 legislative days of its finalization, something Democrats have pledged to do next year if they have the votes.”

Trump’s end run around the law passed by Congress in 1969 by issuing a new interpretation of the law in the form of a changed regulation should not stand. If a court does not nullify the Trump regulation, President Biden and a Democratic Senate and House should do so as a first order of business in 2021.

For further reading, see The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump by Roanoke native James Morton Turner (Harvard University Press, 2018).

Mr. Cutler lives in Roanoke. In 1970 he wrote the Secretary of Transportation’s memo on NEPA requirements to transportation agencies. As assistant secretary of agriculture in the Carter Administration he was responsible for many environmental impact statements including the EIS for the Forest Service Roadless Area Review and Evaluation. He taught environmental policy at Michigan State University, the University of Virginia and Hollins University.

This piece first appeared in The Roanoke Times.