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NEPA Reform Gives More Power to the People, Less to Environmental Lawyers

The Trump administration’s recent changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would reduce the years of red tape and litigation that frequently blocks job-creating energy projects such as new oil or natural gas pipelines. They would also give a greater voice to the local communities that are positively impacted by such projects.

Anti-project environmentalists claim the opposite, equating local sentiment with local opposition. Many attacked the NEPA changes as shutting out the voices of project critics. Typical is Earthjustice’s response, entitled Trump Wants to Undo the People’s Environmental Law. In truth, these activists have long misused NEPA and other federal environmental statutes to override local support for such projects, and it is this misuse that the Trump administration has helped address with its changes.

The environmentalists’ phony populism is particularly stark when they target fossil fuel production and transport projects. These projects typically have strong support. There is an undeniable pro-coal attitude almost everywhere coal mines are actually located. Most of the traditional “oil patch” regions want to continue drilling, and a clear majority of communities that have been transformed by the shale revolution consider it a change for the better and don’t want to go back to the pre-shale days. Simply put, climate change alarmism has not caught on in these places, and few see it as a reason to forego the jobs and local tax revenues provided by energy projects.

Doubt the popular support for energy projects targeted by environmental groups? Take a look at perhaps the most targeted of them of all—the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. Note particularly a map of the proposed pipeline route. When the people in the vicinity of the pipeline go to the polls, they vote overwhelmingly for pro-Keystone XL legislators, including all six U.S. senators from the three states (Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana) most directly impacted. Two of the three governors from those states also support the project. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts noted that Keystone XL would “bring great-paying jobs to our state” and that “several Nebraska counties will benefit from a surge in property tax revenues from the pipeline project.” Similarly, Kristi Noem has a long pro-Keystone XL record, both during her eight years in Congress and now as Governor of South Dakota. Only Montana Governor Steve Bullock has expressed reservations, but said he may support the project “if it’s done right.”

True, there are projects that do garner substantial local opposition, whether based on genuine concerns or not in my backyard—NIMBY—activism, but these are exceptions and not the rule. More often than not, the state and local elected officials, and the people they represent, support new energy projects and their potential to create jobs and increase revenues.

Notwithstanding their populist rhetoric, many big environmental groups are organized and run for the express purpose of overriding local support. Whenever a mine, pipeline, or other fossil energy project is proposed, these outside groups fly in their lawyers from Washington to the nearest federal district court (or circuit court, as the case may be) and sue to block the project, regardless of how locally popular it may be. The environmental lawyers do this using federal statutes, including NEPA, that supersede state and local governments and elected officials.

The Trump NEPA reforms will rein in the ability of these groups to block projects, especially when based on climate change grounds.

In recent months, green groups and their media allies have increased their emphasis on environmental justice concerns, highlighting indigenous peoples or minority groups as victims of energy projects and characterizing the Trump administration NEPA reforms as an assault on people of color. In truth, there are just as many such groups that recognize the benefits of these projects. For example, Sarah Obed, an Alaskan and spokesperson for native-owned corporation Doyon Limited, recently testified before Congress that environmental justice shouldn’t mean only shutting down energy production. She said that “when it comes to energy and other resource development and infrastructure projects in Alaska, this [environmental justice] demands that the voices of those who might support these activities, and who directly or indirectly benefit from them, must also be heard and respected—not only those who might choose to oppose them.” The same is true for black communities impacted by energy production and transport. A growing number of black activists disagree with environmentalists that projects such as natural gas pipelines pose a disproportionate risk to black communities. Quite the contrary, they argue that black communities can be the disproportionate beneficiaries of the jobs and community development. There are two sides to environmental justice, but environmental groups and the media often present a misleading picture.

The administration’s NEPA reforms could help get more of these job-creating projects back on track. Perhaps just as important, they limit the ability of environmental activists and lawyers to block locally popular projects and deprive communities of their benefits.