White House, © Trevor McGoldrick

STOP MAKING SENSE: White House Suggests Smart Planning, Congress May Say No

If you’re planning to build a road, doesn’t it make sense to place it somewhere that won’t be washed away by rising seas within a few years? If you’re working on a water project that will impact a salmon stream, wouldn’t you want to plan for the fact that future droughts will also affect the amount and quality of water in that stream? If you’re creating a solution to protect cities and infrastructure from flooding, wouldn’t you want to make sure you plan for the floods you are likely to have in a future with more severe storms, rather than just taking cues from the past? And don’t all these considerations make even more sense for projects that are built with public funding, to make sure that they are sound long-term investments of our tax dollars?

With little fanfare, in the week before Christmas, the Obama administration released a draft policy that would bring this common sense to all these kinds of projects and more. The policy in question isn’t even a new regulation, but rather “guidance” to agencies on how to incorporate the impacts of climate change into the analysis and decisions that they make through one of our most important laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under the dual realities of shrinking budgets and an increasingly unstable climate, this guidance has the potential to considerably improve how major federal decisions are made in the coming decades. But to understand the ramifications of this guidance, you need to understand NEPA.

Beaufort Sea, © NOAA

NEPA is one of the most important environmental laws that most people have never heard of. It applies to every federal agency and any project that gets federal funding or permits. Signed into law by President Nixon on New Year’s Day in 1970, NEPA declares a national policy “to use all practical means and measures”

In a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.

One of the key ways that NEPA advances this policy is by instituting a sound, transparent planning approach to large-scale government decisions. Before taking an action that could have a significant effect on the environment, NEPA requires those involved to develop alternative ways to achieve the same goal, and to evaluate the environmental impacts (good and bad) that each different approach would have. For instance, if the goal is to enable commuters to travel between two cities, the alternatives might be a highway that cuts straight through a wetland, a longer highway going around it, or a new rail line. NEPA requires the agency to lay out and weigh the pros and cons of each approach.

NEPA also requires agencies to provide the public with an opportunity to review and comment on the documents describing these trade-offs. Interestingly, the law doesn’t actually require the agency to choose the alternative that is best for the environment. But by taking a hard look at all the impacts and opportunities for public involvement, NEPA seeks to improve the government’s decisions affecting the environment.

To continue to improve how we put NEPA into practice as new science is discovered, the government will periodically releases “guidance” on implementing the law. These guidelines are not binding, but they show agencies how to align NEPA with related laws (like The Clean Air Act) or other stated governmental goals, like promoting environmental justice or preserving biodiversity.

In 2010, the Obama administration released its first draft of guidance on how agencies should consider climate change. It included how to account for a project’s greenhouse gas emissions, and also how to think about the effects that climate change will have on the project, and on the affected environment. From a wildlife standpoint, the guidance was pretty weak. It stated that the new rules didn’t apply to federal natural resource agencies, like the Forest Service. Since those agencies are responsible for so much important wildlife habitat, we believe they have to take climate change into account as well.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, © Gary Garton

During the ensuing years, our team at Defenders analyzed more than 150 environmental documents to see how well climate change was incorporated into agency decisions. We found that most agencies had a long way to go in accounting for the ways that climate change could worsen the environmental impacts of their proposals. And in our report, we included recommendations for how to better protect wildlife and the environment from the effects of climate change and federal actions.

Thankfully, the new guidelines released in December reflect many of our recommendations. Most importantly, it now explicitly applies to agencies in charge of our natural resources. This is a critical step toward ensuring that federal projects and investments are able to withstand the effects of climate change, and also toward knowing how much these projects contribute to the problem through greenhouse gas emissions. Given all the dramatic climate-related impacts we have already experienced – floods, storms, droughts, rising sea levels and more – it would be irresponsible for major federal taxpayer-funded projects not to take climate change into account. We know these changes are coming, and that federal agencies must adapt to them. Our communities, wildlife, ecosystems, and pocketbooks will depend on it.

Unfortunately, like many environmental laws, NEPA has come under attack in recent years with numerous bills containing provisions that would gut the Act. Some provisions would put limits on how much officials need to look at the environmental impacts of different alternatives to a project. Others would keep the public from being able to comment on the projects, or keep groups like Defenders from taking agencies to court when they do a bad job at their analysis. And just last week, Senator Deb Fischer (R- NE) submitted an amendment on the Keystone XL pipeline legislation that would prohibit federal agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions that their major projects would lead to – a direct attack on the administration’s new NEPA and climate change guidance.

These attacks on NEPA are reckless and short-sighted. It makes sense for government to make decisions with as much relevant information as possible, to be transparent in how they make decisions, to look at alternative approaches to achieve their goals, and to allow me or you to have a voice in their decisions. Spurred by anti-environmental zealots, I fear common sense and good public policy will be in short supply in the halls of Congress in the coming year.

Noah Matson, Vice President of Landscape Conservation & Climate Adaptation
Aimee Delach, Senior Climate Adaptation Policy Analyst

38 Responses to “STOP MAKING SENSE: White House Suggests Smart Planning, Congress May Say No”

  1. Darla Daniel-Seabolt

    If we don’t do something about it now, will be paying for it later. It’s time for action so the next generation doesn’t have to suffer!

  2. Darla Daniel-Seabolt

    Please stop messing with Mother Nature! Let’s clean it up now.

    • Dick Dierks

      Repubs don’t know who Mother Nature is, and they don’t really care!!! Ignorance is bliss!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Marga

      How right you are!!!! Mother Nature only will take so much before retalliating! I hope she will soon!

  3. Maria Moorat

    I applaud anything your organisation can do to protect the planet. The stranglehold of the big corporations lobbying and getting their own way must be tempered by science and common sense.
    Are people beginning to listen and understand the necessity of conservation?

  4. Tania Roa

    I believe we, as a country, need to look towards the future and prepare for it because we are in the middle of a climate crisis and our only choice is to work with what we have. It is clear that we cannot continue living as we’re used to and significant changes must been made in order to help our environment which, in turn, will help us stay alive. This draft is one way we can work towards our common goal.

  5. Wally Marshall

    I’ve seen nothing in the discussion of the Keystone Pipeline that gives valid reasons for it’s construction. If it’s so necessary let Canada recover and refine it and use it at home. I don’t see any cars being taken off the road for lack of fuel in the US. In fact the price of gasoline has plummeted with the retiring of gas hog vehicles and efficiencies in newer cars. The steel for a pipeline would come from China not US producers and the few jobs created in building and the environmental impact would he enormous.

  6. Heather G Kutch

    Progress in government would be transparency so the public can be educated and informed and stand up to special interest groups that care only about their share holder’s bottom line and not the environment.

  7. Myra mann

    I feel we need to do everything in our power to protect our environment. Thank you for what you do to promote this protection. I am upset that this becomes a political issue. It is unfortunate that big business lobbying can control the way many in Congress vote.

  8. bhu raman

    It is a delicate environment where we have to coexist with other animals, plants and natural elements. Since our way of living can now be modified with constant observation of nature with the help of science and engineering, we have to take progressive action against degradation caused by our interference in this area.

    We learn a lot by silently observing nature with the help of sensors and other electronics. Remote sensing by all means, including satellites and other distant sensors will be of much use.

    B.Raman, Chennai, India 600028.

  9. Kate Mackey

    I applaud all action to reverse the effects of greenhouse gasses. I am deeply disturbed by the lack of concern of the general public for this problem and the growing gap there s between what scientist’s believe and the opinions of the general public. I will support DoW as much as I can.

  10. Sheryl Schmatjen

    This country seems to be run by short-sighted men (and women) who cannot imagine consequences of the actions they propose and support. If it brings them money now (political support, back room deals or direct compensation), they are all for it. If they ruin our air, water, land, how do they think mankind (and the animals and plants that have a right to live as well) is going to eat, drink, breathe and survive?? The greed, arrogance and pure evil out there is about to bring down the entire world to a filthy, barren and hostile place, where all the hoarded millions of dollars won’t do them any damn good! Will they finally wake up and think of the future? I am very pessimistic about that possibility. But it’s said, “miracles do happen.” Keep fighting, Defenders, any way that you can.

  11. Martha Welch

    We Plan better right I no faith in congress so little open spaces and the Frankers have eyes on it among those frankers are John Boehner and Koch Bothers and more in Wyoming use super up salt water franking that killed 2 stream, Still no votes in house or senate what is going on here? The Pope wants a ban on franking he says franking is destruction of nature a modern sin and we are stewards, not maters of the earth

    • Cat Jefferson

      Martha, That’s fracking, with a c not franking with a n, as in hydraulic fracturing.

  12. Dennis Carpenter

    Don’t you think we have messed up this world it is time to clean it up

  13. Soupy

    Stop fighting NEPA and support it. We need common sense in our gov’t large scale projects, bill, and laws

  14. Leslie Gould

    Unless we protect Mother Earth & her wild denizens & unless we curb & control human population growth, we also as a species will perish along with all the other living beings. Our trash will remain, though.

  15. Jan Clark

    Please protect the Earth, water, soil, air, animals, and us from all the harmful toxins that are released every day by one means or another. If we protect the environment it will protect us.

  16. jak brewer

    If you believe in common sense solutions like I do and most of the people in my area, you are out of luck because we have a congress person, Virginia Foxx, who believes that global climate change is a hoax and that ALL public lands should be for sale and has so much money behind her and has gerrymandered her way to permanent office in congress that she will be there forever.

  17. nancy lowe

    Stop the pipeline and any more damage to our earth. If we are as intelligent as we think we are then figure out another scenario. Come on. We can do it. Grred needs to stop. If you take the oil out of a car engine it will burn up when running dry. Well taking the oil out of the earth’s engine or core will have the same devistating effects. It is there for a reason. Leave well enough alone and tell big bullying oil companies to stick their heads in the sludge they create. Greed will get us nowhere but destruction of our planet.

  18. Philip Ratcliff

    A new dark age descends, at least for the next two years, with a GOP-controlled Congress.

  19. Karen Hanegan

    I am totally dismayed by the power that short-sighted, money-driven corporations continually seem to exert over political decisions made that affect our climate, ecology, environment and wildlife. These decisions should rather be made upon scientifically proven evidence and extrapolations. They should look far into the future rather than how much money can be gained by a few in the next few years.
    I totally support your organization in its efforts in effective, relevant reporting on these issues, and its work with the aforesaid corporate-controlled political entities!

  20. Joan A. Lahmon

    It’s hard to believe that with all the drastic weather patterns, and seeing polar bears and seals have their natural home affected (continuing melting ice), people want to destroy more and more the beautiful natural homes of not just wildlife, but mankind as well. We need to pass on to our children and their children the beauty in nature.

  21. Cat Jefferson

    This entire planet is in deep trouble. What makes me sick is the fact that our government, as well as all other governments, take way too much time to do anything about it. Most scientists say it’s already too late. It very well could be, but if it isn’t, it WILL be soon. With all of the deniers, and the third world countries becoming more and more industrialized, this world doesn’t stand a chance. I’m glad I chose to not have children that would be inhering this mess, and I pity those that do. I also hope at my age (late 50’s) that I do not live long enough to truly be suffering the consequences of the raping of our only earth.

  22. April Silverman

    The Republicans are selfish, short-sighted, greedy, and ignorant. What Boehner said I wish on all the stubborn, stupid, more-money, more-money-at-any-cost to people, the environment, and wildlife–“Dead! Really Dead Republicans!”

  23. Marie Soto

    Change has to happen, our environment and wild life have been abused for to long now. We must do everything to stop this reckless behavior for our future generations before it’s to late. Politicians that are only looking after their own pocket books with no regards to our future generations need to STOP!! Please STOP killing our planet and wildlife.

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