In issues large and small, the Bush administration has
spent the better part of two years rolling back Bill Clinton's
environmental legacy. It has abandoned the Kyoto accord
on global warming, weakened protections for wetlands and
eased mining laws. Now it appears to be aiming at even
bigger game - the National Environmental Policy Act, regarded
as the Magna Carta of environmental protection and perhaps
the most important of all the environmental statutes signed
into law by Richard Nixon three decades ago.
The act, NEPA for short, is no stranger to controversy.
Bureaucrats blame it for gridlock, commercial interests
for blocking progress. Environmentalists, of course, love
it, as well they should.
The act is essentially a sunshine law. It requires all
federal agencies to make a detailed assessment of the
consequences of any project likely to have a significant
impact on the environment, and make that assessment available
for comment from the public and other federal agencies.
The law does not mandate particular outcomes. Its purpose
is to keep federal agencies from doing destructive things
- clear-cutting forests, straightening rivers, destroying
wildlife in the name of development - under cover of darkness.
And over the years it has done a world of good.
The Bush administration has been seeking to ignore or
limit the reach of this statute in three main areas. The
clearest example is forest policy. Mr. Bush's "Healthy
Forests" initiative, now the subject of intense debate
in Congress, would ease NEPA requirements for timber projects
that the federal government deems necessary to prevent
fires. Conservationists believe that many such projects
are in fact camouflage for commercial logging. They are
worried, and rightly so, that suspending NEPA could lead
to widespread environmental degradation for no other purpose
than to enrich the timber companies.
Energy policy has been equally troublesome. Though President
Bush has never hidden his desire to open up vast expanses
of the public lands to oil and gas drilling, the White
House has always insisted that it had no intention of
end-running NEPA. But in fact it has. In recent months,
at least two projects - a 77,000-well methane project
in Wyoming and Montana, and a seismic testing project
near Arches National Park in Utah - have been challenged
(and may ultimately be significantly revised) because
the administration failed to do the necessary environmental
The administration has also tried to limit the law's
reach offshore. In a recent court case, involving a Navy
plan to test sonar devices off the Pacific Coast, the
Justice Department argued that the Navy was under no obligation
to assess potential harm to marine life. The Natural Resources
Defense Council sued, arguing that not only did the law
apply but that suspending it in this case would open the
door to a range of unregulated and potentially destructive
activities, including ocean dumping and the overfishing
of depleted species.
The judge sided with the environmentalists, who, though
pleased with the ruling, regard it as only a temporary
respite in the NEPA wars. Even now, a White House task
force is working on ways to "enhance" the act by streamlining
it. That sounds innocent enough, but based on the administration's
behavior so far, some fear that the real intent is not
to streamline the process but to circumvent it, perhaps
by executive order. Congress, which wrote this law 33
years ago, must be alert to any effort to undermine it.