Analysis: Cutting Red Tape In Transportation Bill Means Cutting You Out Of The Environmental Review Process

By Christy Goldfuss

Stories about the recent House transportation bill will likely focus on what was not in the package: the Keystone XL pipeline and coal ash regulations.

However, environmentalists, right-to-know advocates, and community organizers need to take a close look at the section that discusses “Accelerated Decision Making.”  For the first time, but likely not the last, conservative politicians in the House won a major victory in this small section of the bill by including their “streamlining” language, which simply means curtailing the public’s ability to comment on the impacts of transportation projects for communities — including on water, air, and public safety.

The legislation weakens one of our bedrock environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which guarantees public participation in reviewing government activities that affect the environment. It was signed into law by President Richard Nixon after passing the Senate by unanimous vote and the House by an overwhelming 372-15 vote.

First, the “Accelerated Decision Making” section of the transportation bill does what has never been done before — fining agencies up to 7% of their fiscal year budget if they do not meet established deadlines for environmental analyses. On the one hand, that means taking more money away from financially strapped agencies trying to accelerate their decision making process about the impacts of a project. On the other hand, it gives agencies an incentive to deny permits in order to avoid the fine.  Neither of these impacts will lead to getting more transportation projects on line faster.

Next, this section of the law expands the type of projects that do not have to go through a public comment and environmental review process at all.  These projects may get less than $5 million in federal funds, but they could still be large in scope.  Regardless of the overall size, the public will not be given an opportunity to comment and the public will not have an opportunity to see how the highway, bridge, or other transportation project will impact their community.

Lastly, this is just the beginning of efforts by House Republicans to “streamline” policies that protect the American public’s health and safety.  The House Committee on Natural Resources has been an incubator for such policy ideas, mostly around oil and gas development. For example, Rep. Doug Lamborn’s (R-CO), “Streamlining Permitting of American Energy Act” (H.R. 4383) purports to get more oil and gas drilling online by impeding  citizens’ ability to exercise their legal right to raise concerns about proposed oil and gas leases by charging $5,000 to do so.

The Transportation Surface Transportation Act is just the first time that House Republicans have been successful in getting this language over the finish line.

Christy Goldfuss is the Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

7 Responses to Analysis: Cutting Red Tape In Transportation Bill Means Cutting You Out Of The Environmental Review Process

  1. “Neither of these impacts will lead to getting more transportation projects on line faster.”

    So what?

    Honestly, most of the transportation projects involve expansion of road capacity, in one form or another, for cars and trucks.

    Expansion of road capacity is not compatible with 5% reduction in VMT year-on-year for the coming decades, which is what we need to mitigate climate change.

    “No new highway lane miles” is a fundamental principle of seriously changing direction to save civilization.

    I’m very concerned about reduced environmental review. But quantitatively, the bulk impact of capacity expansion projects probably swamps the incremental impacts avoided through NEPA processes. Esp. while agencies continue to ignore climate change impacts in NEPA work.

    The bulk amount of new projects are the real climate-busting story in the new transportation bill. A spade has got to be called a shovel. Let’s talk about the real story.

    If the Center for American Progress hasn’t gotten this straight yet, what can you expect from the body politic overall?

  2. Curtailed environmental review is also a feature of the Senate “Farm” Bill.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    The Council on Environmental Quality, ( which oversees NEPA, has had a draft statement on climate change since 2010. If that were included in NEPA review AND equally applied to all federally funded projects such as transportation projects and farm subsidy, it would have a useful impact.
    It would require consideration of:

    (1) The GHG emissions effects of the proposed action and alternative actions; and

    (2) The relationship of climate change effects to a proposed action or alternatives, including the relationship to a proposal design, environmental impacts, mitigation and adaptation measures.

    A pdf copy of “Consideration of Effects of GHG Draft NEPA Guidance FINAL. 02182010.pdf” is available through the White House webpage

    Since this is just a comment, I leave it to others to expand more comprehensively on how those two requirements would affect federal projects.

    Example – highways might have to include mass transportation options like a rail corridor to respond to (1), and regarding (2) be built to handle higher floods as well as more extreme soil saturation and soil desiccation.

  4. Yes, the CEQ guidance on including climate change considerations in NEPA processes is pretty good. Thanks for citing it here.

    For a specific example of how the CEQ guidance is failing to penetrate business as usual in key agencies, see this January 2011 letter from then-BLM-Director Bob Abbey to the Wild Earth Guardians:

    The BLM specifically references the CEQ guidance (on page 6) even though the reasoning in the letter (and the continuing BLM coal leasing behavior) are directly in contradiction to what the CEQ guidance actually says.

    I’d love to hear more about how the DOT has been responding to the CEQ guidance, and who might be engaging the DOT in terms of climate change and NEPA analysis.

  5. Kathy McT says:

    The same thing is happening in Canada, too!

    Check out Bill C-38:

    “The Harper government is trying to quickly pass, without debate, one of the most destructive pieces of legislation in Canadian history.

    Anyone concerned with tar sands pipelines, climate change, workers rights, unemployment insurance, Indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s rights, food security, Old Age Security, rural development and the Canadian economy needs to take action now.

    What is Bill C-38?

    Bill C-38 introduces, amends, or repeals some 70 federal laws in a single bill, and the Conservative government has motioned to limit debate.

    from “10 reasons to oppose Bill C-38″

    1. Bill C-38 guts environmental legislation and ‘streamlines’ the environmental review process to pave the way for rapid approval of industrial mega-projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in northern B.C., the Alberta tar sands, and Quebec’s Plan Nord.

    2. Various aspects of Bill C-38, including changes to the environmental assessment review process, violate the federal government’s obligation to consult with First Nations and accommodate First Nation Treaty and Aboriginal rights.”

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The situation is the same with our far Right in Australia. The Leader of the Opposition Tony ‘Climate Change is Crap’ Abbott, was at it yesterday, promising billions for new roads, because roads are a ‘a symbol of progress’,-to group suicide, in this case. It is remarkable just how obdurately resistant to learning and intellectual growth is the Rightwing crustacean mind.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    When you look at how the far, omnicidal, Right is acting in absolutely identical fashion in all the Anglosphere countries, not just denying ecological catastrophe but ferociously, even manically, seeking to destroy all environmental law (while psychotically claiming to be ‘protecting the environment’)one could be forgiven for suspecting active collusion, over and above the mere synchronicity of the twisted psychology of genocidists with dead souls.