Activists with a wide range of conservation and indigenous-rights groups had been bracing themselves for a fight over a critical environmental-protection law known as the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, since soon after President Donald Trump took office three years ago. But they were caught off guard by the specifics of what the White House's Council on Environmental Quality proposed when it unveiled its plan to “modernize” NEPA regulations last month — including an abbreviated outreach process that featured just two hearings where the public would have an opportunity to comment on proposed changes.
“It’s unprecedented,” says Jeremy Nichols, an activist with environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “This is sweeping. This isn’t some little tweak of an air regulation or a rule that affects only a specific sector. This affects all aspects of American life. You can draw a line between any person here and a relevant, recent NEPA process — I-70, Rocky Flats...there’s so much.”
For Nichols and other Colorado-based activists, there was one small consolation: They didn’t have to travel very far to speak at the first of the two public hearings, which was held at the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional headquarters in Denver on Tuesday, February 11. There, CEQ officials outlined their plan to dramatically weaken NEPA regulations, which require federal agencies to perform extensive reviews of the environmental impacts of major industrial and infrastructure projects.
“The proposed rule is proposed to modernize and clarify the CEQ regulations to facilitate more effective, efficient and timely NEPA reviews by federal agencies,” said Ted Boling, associate director of NEPA policy at CEQ. “The revisions are intended to make the regulations easier to read, understand and follow.”
But activists say that’s just code for undermining environmental protections at the behest of powerful industry groups. As laid out by Boling, the new rules would make sweeping changes to the NEPA process, imposing time and page limits on key environmental reports, limiting the scope of many reviews and increasing the number of projects that could be excluded from the process altogether.
Because NEPA reviews include extensive public-comment processes, the changes could prevent impacted communities from weighing in on proposals with potentially serious environmental implications. That’s particularly troubling to Native Americans who have long been victimized by the federal government, said indigenous activists who spoke during a public-comment period on February 11.
“I think that the proposed changes are a slap in the face to our democracy, and a slap in the face to the integrity of our Mother Earth,” said Lyla June Johnston, an activist and member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation. “The policies of Trump tend to favor business, and they are willing to expedite business at the expense of the health of our water, our ecology and future generations.”
Supporters of the proposed change included representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, oil and gas groups and other industrial interests, who argued that NEPA reviews have become too lengthy and burdensome.
“Our support of this proposal is to ensure that the process is designed to work for everyone involved,” said Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Mining Association. “We must address environmental priorities while also making sure projects are considered on a timely basis.”
For full NEPA reviews, federal agencies prepare lengthy documents known as Environmental Impact Statements that examine the potential effects on public health, safety, air and water quality, natural landscapes, wildlife, noise and more. The Trump administration’s proposed rule changes would limit the scope of the impacts that such reviews could evaluate — especially with respect to climate change, said Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor, who testified in opposition at the February 11 hearing and was especially critical of a section in the revised rule that instructs federal regulators not to consider environmental effects "if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain."
"This language appears to be surgically designed to eliminate consideration of climate impacts, since these are precisely caused by the cumulative impacts of emissions greenhouse gases," Toor said. "Our agency is particularly concerned about decisions the federal government may make about energy and transportation infrastructure, or about fossil-fuel development on federal public lands in Colorado, that could undermine our state policy goals and harm residents."
Toor was one of four members of Governor Jared Polis's cabinet to testify against the proposed changes. But despite hours of testimony from state agency heads, elected officials, dozens of grassroots activists and other speakers from across Colorado and the West, activists fear that their voices will matter less to the Trump administration than the handful of highly paid lobbyists who expressed their support.
"It's only the extractive interests who support this, because they have the most to gain," Nichols says. "They want to be able to run roughshod over our communities and over our public lands, and continue to deny climate change."
As hearings continued throughout the day inside the EPA's Denver office, activists from a broad coalition of environmental groups gathered just across the street for a series of rallies outside the Alliance Center, hoping to send a message to Trump and his allies even as they worried that the outcome of the administration's abbreviated public outreach process is pre-ordained.
"We have no illusions that we're going to show up and change CEQ's mind, but at least we can demonstrate the political power here," Nichols says. "We want the Trump administration to regret they ever decided to hold a hearing in Denver."
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