The National Environmental Policy Act - known as the Magna Carta
of US environmental laws - is under intense political scrutiny.
For 35 years, NEPA has required that everything built or operated
on federal land that "significantly affects the quality of the human
environment" be scrutinized for its impact. Thousands of
construction projects and other ventures - from highways, dams, and
water projects to military bases and oil drilling - have been
adjusted and in some cases scrapped because of the law.
The requirements of this Nixon-era act have done much for
environmental protection, its supporters say. NEPA also has acted as
a "sunshine law," opening the political process involving such
decisions to all Americans through "environmental impact statements"
allowing for public comment.
But the law has also been the basis for hundreds of lawsuits, in
effect becoming a tool for activists to slow or kill many projects.
NEPA also has greatly added to the cost of public works, energy
development, and other beneficial projects, critics say. Most
recently, it has been charged, environmental lawsuits under NEPA
stymied US Army Corps of Engineers plans that might have lessened
the impact of hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.
A congressional task has just ended a series of public hearings
in five states and Washington, D.C. Lawmakers heard from a range of
interests - the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, the Women's
Mining Coalition, the Zuni Tribe, the Sierra Club, energy lobbyists,
and local officials. A report and recommendations from the task
force are expected shortly. It's unclear whether these will produce
major changes to NEPA, as some environmental activists fear, or
merely tweaks in the law.
Task force's marching orders
In either case, the working premise of the 20-member task force
has been made clear by its chairwoman: "What started as an overly
vague single-paragraph statute is now 25 pages of regulations, 1,500
court cases, and hundreds of pending lawsuits that are blocking
important projects and economic growth," said Rep. Cathy McMorris
(R) of Washington. "Too often we are hearing horror stories about
endless reams of paper needed to complete the environmental impact
The law's supporters see it as a "look-before-you-leap" measure
that has brought about a new way of considering long-range
environmental impacts of things like river dredging, new power
plants, and waste disposal. In the case of New Orleans,
environmentalists point out, the US Army Corps of Engineers
responded to a NEPA challenge (upheld by a federal judge in 1977) by
withdrawing its plan for new levees. …