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National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

Original Text

Effective Dates
1/1/1970 - Present

Reform Goals
“Encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man.”

Requirements (What of Whom?)
Deemed the “Magna Carta” of environmental law, NEPA requires all federal agencies to consider and analyze alternatives for infrastructure projects that receive federal funding, work performed by a federal agency, or private projects that require a federal permit. Agencies must then submit an environmental impact statement (EIS) to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the public for review.

Who oversees the rule? 
The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)

Reform “Teeth”
CEQ has no authority to approve or reject projects, and there are no specific penalties for failing to submit an EIS. An agency is liable to lawsuit if it does not comply, and many agencies have been sued under NEPA.

Outcomes
25 years after the passage of NEPA, CEQ concluded that while it brings more environmental awareness to agency planning, it does not promote strategic resource allocation to minimize environmental impact, and it adds significant time and cost to federal projects.  EIS analyses are of varying quality, and are often started so late in the planning process that they fail to seriously consider alternatives. [1] Furthermore, EIS reports add staggering amounts of paperwork to the regulatory process. Raising the roadway at Bayonne Bridge, a project with minimal environmental impact, resulted in an EIS over 10,000 pages long.[2]

Commentary
On balance, NEPA may actually harm the environment by radically slowing the pace at which America can update core infrastructure. For example, a new federal aid high project may need to interface with up to 30 distinct federal, state, and local agencies, and spend two to eight years in permitting before it can break ground.[3]  Regulatory reform expert Philip K. Howard estimates that the average 6 years avoidable delay in infrastructure approvals nationwide results in $3.6 trillion lost to the American economy. [4]  A major portion of this cost represents environmental damage incurred by leaving older, less efficient infrastructure in place. 

Of the $800 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus package set aside for infrastructure, only 3.6% was ever spent as projects were lost to permitting complexity. [5] NEPA is one of the worst examples of regulatory reforms, where a feel-good push for “transparency” not only failed to achieve any outcomes, but resulted in major unintended economic consequences for the country.

References

  1. Executive Office of the President. Council on Environmental Quality. "The National Environmental Policy Act: A Study of Its Effectiveness After Twenty-five Years." Link , PDF
  2. Cited by Philip K. Howard: United States Coast Guard, First District. "Bayonne Bridge Navigational Clearance Program—Final Environmental Assessment." May 2013. Link
  3. See Reference [1].
  4. Philip K. Howard. “Two Years Not Ten Years: Redesigning Infrastructure Approval.” September 2015 Link
  5. February 2014 White House Report on the economic stimulus. Link