One of the heavily watched industries in our nation’s capital is the energy industry and, crucially, one of the most talked about laws subject to change is the National Environmental Policy Act, which governs a multitude of industries which interact with the environment.
What is the National Environmental Policy Act?
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was established in part to help ensure that environmental impacts were studied and considered before any project could take place. This extends to energy, infrastructure, and a multitude of industries which impact the environment through their projects or their operation. This law, in effect since the Carter administration, has been a mainstay for decades. Now, the Trump administration is working to streamline and make changes that would circumscribe federal powers and perhaps provide a clearer path to some upcoming energy projects.
What changes to NEPA can we expect?
One of the most significant changes to NEPA is that a new category of “non-major” products would escape review. This would narrow the standard by which projects are judged and could lead to many more being approved quickly. The current standard of review takes into account how a project impacts global climate change by looking at the “cumulative” effect of the project, thus a project could be measured against eventual or overall sea level rise or carbon dioxide emissions. However, the Trump administration’s change in category would substantially narrow that review to what are seen as “foreseeable” situations.
For example, a new coal power plant in West Virginia would not be judged by how much carbon dioxide it adds to the world’s air supply and its overall contribution to climate change. It would be judged on how it would affect air quality in its state and possibly surrounding areas over time in addition to any other local environmental impacts. Another project might be judged by how it impacts the local streams and tributaries instead of how it contributes to sea level rise and coral bleaching throughout the world.
Are there any other relevant changes to NEPA that impact the law?
Currently, given the judicial challenges to some projects, environmental impact statements can take more than five years to produce. Given how that can delay a project, its impacts, and any potential job prospects for those dependent on it, the administration is proposing establishing a two year limit on environmental impact statements. They would also establish a one year limit for the more narrowly tailored environmental assessments. The administration also wishes to clarify definitions of some terms so they are technically feasible and so that not all projects or those with minimal federal involvement are not swept into the “major federal action” category.
What do these potential changes to NEPA mean for the energy industry overall?
These changes, while still not law, represent a significant step forward for potential use of energy sources. By lessening the bureaucratic red tape and clarifying the federal government’s role in these projects, those who wish to utilize energy sources more effectively can look toward a greater ease in their environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Although some of these proposals look promising, it will be up to all leaders in the federal government to work together to pass and implement them in a timely manner.