***Cynthia Giles is no longer at the University of Chicago***
Building the U.S. Interstate highway system in the 1950s and 60s is often cited as one of government’s great achievements. But it had harmful impacts too. Many city communities were bulldozed to make space for freeways. Across the nation, people vigorously objected to having no say in these decisions, leading to “freeway revolts.”
This outcry, coupled with the growing environmental movement, gave rise to the idea – revolutionary at the time – that agencies should take a hard look at the environmental impacts of their actions, consider reasonable alternatives and allow community input. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), enacted in 1970, codified these principles and allowed citizens to sue if they believed government had not complied. Because it represents a turning point in thinking about environmental protection, NEPA has been called the “Magna Carta of environmental law.”
Despite NEPA’s demonstrated successes, critics have attacked it for years, usually based on anecdotes claiming that lengthy environmental reviews caused project delays. President Donald Trump’s infrastructure initiative is the latest example. And on May 3, 2018, the Trump administration announced that it will soon propose changes to the rules that guide federal agencies carrying out NEPA reviews.
As attorneys who held senior positions at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, including managing the agency’s NEPA office, we have extensive experience with NEPA reviews. Expert studies reveal a vast disconnect between the evidence, which shows that NEPA is not the cause of project delays, and the sweeping changes that NEPA critics are proposing. This disconnect reveals that current proposals aren’t really about speeding up projects, but are instead part of a broad deregulatory agenda that prioritizes business interests over public benefits from environmental protection.