A move by the Trump administration to roll back landmark environmental policy intended to ensure vigorous scrutiny of federal infrastructure projects has struck alarm in the hearts of California conservationists, particularly those striving to safeguard North Coast waters from offshore energy exploration and production.
Proposed changes to the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act would have sweeping effects nationwide, wherever there is federally built, funded or permitted construction or activity. Examples include mining on federal lands, construction of federally funded highways, or work on interstate gas pipelines or federal dams. But on the North Coast, where residents enjoy some of the most scenic and productive ocean waters on Earth, a coastline already subject to renewed drilling pressures and proposed wind generation facilities may be at greater risk if the NEPA revisions go through, experts say.
“Obviously, it’s going to have dramatic impacts on the whole offshore drilling equation,” said Richard Charter, senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation and a Sonoma Coast resident.
That’s especially true given increased instability in the Middle East due to tension between the United States and Iran, which could move the White House to try to fast-track plans to reopen the North Coast to oil drilling, he said.
“It’s quite frightening,” said Cea Higgins, executive director of Coastwalk California, headquartered in Sonoma County.
President Donald Trump and the White House Council for Environmental Quality, an office established by the 1969 Congressional act, announced the long-anticipated NEPA revisions on Thursday, calling them a needed fix for “job-killing regulations” and an overhaul for a “dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created ... massive obstructions.”
“From Day One, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority,” Trump said. “and we want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways bigger, better, faster, and we want to build them at less cost.”
Critics say the changes may indeed streamline the permitting process for qualifying projects but at the peril of the planet, its people and wildlife.
Amid other provisions, the proposed revisions include reductions in the kinds of projects that would require full environmental evaluation; limits on the time allowed for such review and on the number of alternative approaches that can be considered; and elimination of cumulative impacts completely — including greenhouse gas emissions and other contributions to climate change — from the factors to be considered during review.
The result, critics say, is policy that gives energy and oil interests exactly what they want while reducing the role of science and the public in the analysis of federal projects.
“You’re basically concentrating the chances of the project proponents getting what they want,” said North Coast Congressman and former environmental lawyer Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “It’s taking the NEPA process and, instead of having a trusted government body evaluate the impacts, it turns into an honor system for polluters. They do their own NEPA.
“It’s a terrible idea, and the only good news I can share is it’s very legally flawed and will not survive court challenges,” he said.
NEPA is similar to the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires environmental impact reports be completed to analyze a project’s impacts on a surrounding area in terms of everything from noise and traffic to groundwater and air pollution.
The federal policy applies to federal projects on federal land — for example national forests and monuments or Bureau of Land Management lands — or in federally administered waters, as well as projects on other lands where there is a federal nexus, such as highway projects financed even in part through federal transportation funds — which means most of them, experts said.
In California, where CEQA provides a robust environmental review process, infrastructure projects subject to both state and federal review would still benefit from close scrutiny, even if NEPA is weakened, said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center in Arcata.
But David Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate & Clean Energy Program, said he’s already heard talk in Sacramento about whether CEQA might need to be beefed up to “ensure that things stay even, if you will, so that any reduction in rights on the NEPA side gets picked up by CEQA.”
“A lot of the GHG (green-house gas emissions) analysis would go away” with the NEPA revisions, Pettit said. “Particularly for transportation, I can’t tell you how stupid that is.”
The 194-page NEPA “update” was published in the Federal Register on Friday and is subject to a 60-day public comment period before final evaluations and modifications, which are likely to take several more months, experts said.
Pettit said he thought the chances were “slim” that the final rule would hit the streets before the November presidential election. “So, I’m guessing we’ll wait to see what happens in the election to see whether these rule changes will actually go anywhere.” he said.
But there are guaranteed legal challenges coming, as well, including by the NRDC, he said, so an extended delay is possible.
The NEPA overhaul has long been anticipated and is part of an environmental policy retrenchment undertaken by Trump since he took office three years ago. The Trump White House also has weakened federal Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Act provisions.
In addition, the administration has opened the door to wind power projects in three areas of coastal California, including Humboldt County, and has taken an aggressive position on offshore oil drilling on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and in the Arctic. A five-year plan announced in January 2018 would reopen the North Coast to oil production for the first time in three decades, though it’s suspended for the moment because of unfavorable court rulings and bipartisan political disfavor with expanded coastal drilling.
Offshore areas between Bodega Bay and Point Arena that were ostensibly protected from any threat of drilling by their inclusion in the joint 2015 expansions of the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries also remain at risk — the results still not public of a review ordered up by the Trump White House in 2017 of all sanctuary additions approved in the previous decade and their potential cost to the nation in foregone energy and mineral exploration.
If Trump should get serious about revoking the sanctuary expansion and stripping the nation’s bedrock environmental policy of its teeth, the possibility of oil drilling off the North Coast becomes real, Charter said.
It also “instantly cuts any legal challenge off at the knees,” he said.
“It’s obvious that offshore oil rigs throughout our North Coast waters would displace the fishing industry, routinely dump toxic wastes, and pose an ongoing threat that a massive oil spill would destroy our regional economy,” Charter said. “But by gutting NEPA, absolutely no consideration of the global warming implications of the resulting massive carbon footprint from offshore exploration, development drilling, pipelines to land, or onshore petroleum processing would be allowed. This is simply a nonsensical assumption.”
Said Huffman, “In one sense, it’s just more of the same. We’ve just seen a drumbeat of environmental rollbacks from this administration, so it’s completely unsurprising. But in another sense, the scale of it — coming from (the White House Council on Environmental Quality), applying to all federal agencies, going to all these different extremes, it’s a big deal even by the anti-environmental standards of this administration.
“There is, I think, a lot of surprise that they went all the way to these nuclear options,” Huffman said. “But I’m not surprised.”