Tag: national environmental policy act

Wanted: a Government That Acts Like an Adult and Cleans Up its Mess

Gov. Whitmer’s State of the Union response: standing up for the Great Lakes and environment

The Trump Administration has attacked longstanding U.S. environmental policy head-on. The unprecedented rollback of environmental protections during the past three years puts Michigan, the Great Lakes, and the entire nation at great risk.

Case in point: the recent rollback of federal clean water protections threatens water quality in wetlands and streams across the mitten state. “Clean water is a basic need,” Laura Rubin, director of the Healing Our Waters—Great Lakes Coalition told Bridge Magazine in response. “I am astounded that you would even think about rolling back regulations when you still have people in Michigan that don’t have clean drinking water. We need more—not less—protection for clean water.”

The National Environmental Policy Act—nicknamed the “Magna Carta” of American environmental law—which former President Richard Nixon signed into law on Jan. 1, 1970, is also under threat. This CNN report chronicles Trump’s attacks on the environment.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was given a prime opportunity to provide a bold, optimistic alternative to Trump’s war on the environment when she delivered the Democratic Party’s response to the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Feb. 4.

She highlighted the efforts of young people who are standing up for the environment and other progressive policies:

Democracy takes action and that’s why I’m so inspired by young people. They respond to mass shootings, demanding policies that make schools safer. They react to a world that’s literally on fire with fire in their bellies to push leaders to finally take action on climate change. They take on a road filled with potholes with a shovel and some dirt. It’s what gives me great confidence in our future and it’s why sometimes it feels like they’re the adults in the room. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. It’s not their mess to clean up, it’s ours.”

As the leader of our Great Lakes state, and the protector of our lakes, streams, air, and groundwater, FLOW applauds Whitmer for standing up for the 1.5 million workers whose jobs are directly tied to the health of the Great Lakes. We encourage Whitmer to call for a Great Lakes platform to protect our drinking water, public health, jobs and quality of life.

During her State of the State address last week, Whitmer initially alluded to critical issues including drinking water, climate change, PFAS, record-high Great Lakes water levels, and “their impact on tourism, agriculture and infrastructure”. She suggested that she will make big announcements in the weeks ahead.

FLOW would like to hear her talk more about how state and federal government can protect water and the environment.

Surveys show overwhelming bipartisan support for the protection of air, water, public lands, and natural resources—an essential function of government. 

FLOW’s environmental economics work over the past year makes the economic, legal and moral case for government’s role in protecting the environment and aims to reset the public narrative on environmental policy. Our “Resetting Expectations” briefs by former FLOW board chair Skip Pruss trace the history of environmental regulation since 1970, and illustrate how environmental policies protect individuals, families, and communities while fostering innovation and economic gains.

Why the Trump Administration’s Attack on the National Environmental Policy Act Matters

President Nixon signs NEPA into law on January 1, 1970. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One of the first new laws of the 1970s reflecting the public’s concern about cleaning up the environment was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). On the first day of the new decade—January 1, 1970—President Richard Nixon signed the legislation into law. A milestone in the protection of America’s environment, NEPA has been nicknamed the “Magna Carta” of American environmental law. On its 50th anniversary, it’s important to remember why NEPA has been so important—especially now that the Trump Administration is proposing to weaken it via regulation.

First, what did NEPA do? Former U.S. EPA Deputy Administrator Alvin Alm called NEPA “short, simple, and comprehensive. It established a national policy to protect the environment, created a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and required that environmental impact statements be prepared for major federal actions having a significant effect on the environment.”

That third requirement—the environmental impact statement, or EIS—was, indeed, short and simple, but it turned out to be revolutionary. For the first time, federal agencies had to “look before you leap.” They could not undertake or authorize projects having a significant effect on the environment without first considering alternatives having less impact.

This was a more profound change than it might seem. Using the law as leverage, third parties—often citizen associations and environmental groups—were able to go to court and force federal agencies to think twice about, or back down from, environmentally destructive actions that in prior years would have moved swiftly ahead. At the same time, many federal agencies began good-faith reforms to take environmental impacts into account.

Alm called NEPA’s early results “dramatic. The Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear licensing process was stopped dead in its tracks for more than a year … Outer Continental Shelf oil drilling was held up until a proper environmental impact statement was prepared. Controversy over the Alaska Oil Pipeline was brought to a close only when Congress decreed the environmental impact statement process was completed.”

A measure of NEPA’s success, Alm added, was that by the late 1980s federal agencies routinely considered environmental impacts in their decision making, and often redesigned projects to avoid or minimize those impacts.

As the 50th anniversary of this internationally recognized law arrived, President Donald Trump and federal agencies proposed eviscerating NEPA. Under the guise of “modernizing” NEPA rules, the Trump changes would make it easier for major polluting infrastructure projects, like petroleum pipelines, to move quickly through the federal permit process.

Project proponents would not have to consider—or disclose—the implications for greenhouse gas emissions or other forms of pollution. The rule would allow infrastructure projects to be built without consideration of stronger storms, sea-level rise, and other impacts of climate change, worsening the vulnerability of communities across the country.

Mitch Jones, the climate and energy program director for Food & Water Watch’s policy program, said Trump’s “intention to remove climate considerations from all new infrastructure decisions is akin to lighting the fuse on a bomb and standing idly by as it burns down.”

How would this be done? Primarily by eliminating a requirement that federal agencies must consider climate change impacts of major federal actions. This makes absolutely no sense. As evidence of climate change mounts—from unprecedented major runaway brushfires to torrential, year-in-a-day downpours—the Trump changes would effectively bar the federal government from even looking at the issue. It’s climate denial and a reward for polluting industries in one rule change.

When it took effect, NEPA was a response to decades of environmental deterioration. The changes it inspired helped save taxpayers billions of dollars in avoided costs from environmental boondoggles. The Trump changes would take us back to the days before 1970 in addressing climate concerns.

Before the proposed Trump changes take effect, there will be a 60-day public comment period. Below is information on how you can speak out.

 

You may submit comments, identified by docket number CEQ– 2019–0003, by any of the following methods:

Federal eRulemaking Portal. Follow the instructions for submitting comments. 

Fax: 202–456–6546.

Mail: Council on Environmental Quality, 730 Jackson Place NW, Washington, DC 20503. 

CEQ must receive comments by March 10, 2020.

Instructions: All submissions received must include the agency name and docket number for this rulemaking. All comments received will be posted without change to this website, including any personal information provided. Do not submit electronically any information you consider to be private, Confidential Business Information (CBI), or other information whose disclosure is restricted by statute.

Docket: For access to the docket to read background documents or comments received, visit this site. FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Edward A. Boling, Associate Director for the National Environmental Policy Act, or Viktoria Z. Seale, Chief of Staff and General Counsel, 202–395–5750, NEPA- Update@ceq.eop.gov.

A Truly Golden Anniversary: 50 Years Since the Environmental Awakening of 1970

Photo: Students and faculty at the University of Michigan organized an environmental teach-in attended by 50,000 people in March 1970. It led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

By Dave Dempsey

Although American environmentalism reaches back to the early 20th century, public demands for clean water, clean air, and healthy ecosystems reached a crescendo in 1970. As 2020 dawns, FLOW believes it’s time to remember and reflect on all that happened that 50 years ago—and how we can make the next 50 years a time of further dramatic progress for our precious waters and the environment.

In the minds of some who were present then, the most prominent environmental memory of 1970 is likely the first national observance of Earth Day, April 22—with Michigan out front on that one. In March 1970, students and faculty on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor organized what they called an Environmental Teach-In. 

At the five-day teach-in, in which an estimated 50,000 people participated, Victor Yannacone, a nationally recognized environmental attorney, spoke on use of the courts to halt pollution. He told students, “This land is your land. It doesn’t belong to Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler…it doesn’t belong to any soulless corporation. It belongs to you and me.” A new student group called ENACT organized the week’s events, which included an “Environmental Scream-Out,” a tour of local pollution sites, music by singer Gordon Lightfoot, and speeches by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, scientist Barry Commoner, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Edward Muskie of Maine.

The national observance of Earth Day followed on April 22.

Earth Day 1970, however, was just one of many events and accomplishments—and a few crises—both nationally and in Michigan. During 2020, FLOW will note these and other milestones from 50 years ago:

  • January 1, 1970: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) took effect.
  • January 1970: Michigan Governor William G. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms.
  • March 1970: The discovery of alarmingly high levels of toxic mercury temporarily shut down fishing in Lake St. Clair.
  • March 1970: Environmental Teach-In at U of M in Ann Arbor
  • April 22, 1970: Earth Day
  • July 27, 1970: The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) took effect.
  • October 21, 1970: Legislation creating Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Lower Michigan took effect.
  • December 2, 1970: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was officially created.
  • December 3, 1970: The Michigan Natural Rivers Act took effect.
  • December 31, 1970: The U.S. Clean Air Act took effect.
  • December 31, 1970: The Michigan Great Lakes Shorelands Act was signed into law by Governor Milliken.

The first milestone, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was co-authored by the late Congressman John Dingell of Michigan. As its title suggests, the law established a federal policy on the environment, created a federal Council on Environmental Quality, and required environmental impact statements on proposed major federal activities affecting the environment.

President Richard Nixon, who signed the legislation, said, “I have become convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and its living environment.”

In 1970, there was a broad bipartisan consensus that the United States and Michigan needed to do a much better job of protecting our environment. It’s a lesson from which we can learn today.

 

Share Your Environmental Recollections from 1970

FLOW is looking for contributions from you for this 50th anniversary year of Earth Day and related milestones. Here’s how you can help:

  • Suggest additional local, state, or national milestones from 1970.
  • Provide short guest commentaries (500 words) with your views on the significance of 1970, what’s happened since then environmentally, and where you hope we stand 50 years from now.
  • Provide your historical photos of significant environmental events from 1970.

If you are interested in submitting material, please contact us at info@flowforwater.org.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy advisor.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor