Your speech on NEPA improvement

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In facing the current unprecedented environmental challenges, imagine that the leaders of all environmental authorities on the federal level and state level gathered in a nationwide conference to brainstorm and improve the NEPA process. Participants include experts in the environmental affairs and politicians from federal, state and county government.  You are selected as a Berkeley graduate from the MLA/EP program to give a one-page speech to shed the light and improve a specific step or two in the NEPA screening process. What will you write in this speech? Try to be as solid, specific, coherent as you can and feel free to incorporate an example if it can demonstrate your ideas and convince them to make the change you are requesting.

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7 thoughts on “Your speech on NEPA improvement

  1. It has been almost fifty years since NEPA was initiated in 1970 and there have been very few amendments to this extremely important piece of legislation. It is time for NEPA to be brought to the future to better serve the environment and our communities. The United States serves as an example to the entire world and after NEPA was initiated in our country, over 100 other countries adopted similar legislation. To preserve our position as an innovative world leader we must update and adapt NEPA.
    Despite being active legislation for so long, most citizens do not understand the importance of this law and what it accomplishes. There needs to be more public understanding and education about the process and implications of the act. The government relies on NGO’s to act as a middleman with citizens which has been somewhat effective. However, I propose that the government needs to be more proactive in educating citizens about the importance of the act and how they can comment on open and active projects. Too often citizens either have no idea that they can offer input or falsely believe that public opposition will actually deter projects from being completed. The current administration wants to reduce all of these important laws down to nothing and citizens will not blink an eye unless they are reminded how these laws keep our air, water and land clean and prosperous.
    In addition to more education and outreach, NEPA needs to incorporate the concept of mitigation. The state of California has successfully incorporated mitigation into CEQA. We as a country need to recognize the importances of ecological economics and understand that ecosystems play an important role in human health and economic stability. Climate change has rapidly increased our need for stable environments to help ward the impacts of flooding and strong storms. Projects that demolish existing ecosystems should be required to apply mitigation techniques. Even starting out with a simple sliding scale option for projects to choose applicable and easy mitigation options would be a move in the right direction. If NEPA remains only a tool for analyzing the impact but has not actual weight in the impacts that will occur, it is a tool of the past and not the future.
    Finally, I request that the proposal for exempting the border wall, and 100 miles around the border, be denied. The border between Mexico and the United States houses unique ecosystems, waterways and beautiful national parks. We cannot create a zone between our country and another, that is filled with detrimental industry and projects that have not been fully evaluated by the NEPA process. The flow of goods and people are restricted by a political line drawn in the sand, however, nature does not recognize these boundaries. In this age of advanced technology and huge information exchanges we know how poor planning and inadequate regulations affect both the natural environment and human health. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes of the past. Do not let the border wall and surrounding area become another Cuyahoga River that catches on fire fourteen times before action is taken.

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  2. Our NEPA process has brought us out of the dark ages of environmental degradation. By requiring an exploratory EIS (environmental impact statement), developers and government must evaluate alternative pathways and through this process they often voluntarily choose work with their communities and incorporate more environmentally friendly options into their projects.

    But we can do better. We should go further. The challenges we face in global climate change, population growth, and diminishing natural resources call us to do more.

    Firstly, NEPA should be upgraded with the mitigation requirement of CEQA. This will allow more accurate estimation of costs to the environment and surrounding communities if restoration and mitigation is incorporated into the permitting process.

    Currently NEPA’s jurisdiction is only on Federal properties and actions. While some states, like California, have their own environmental regulations, such as CEQA, many do not. So, secondly, I believe NEPA should be voluntarily adopted by all state, county, and municipal governments. We have to expand responsibility for environmental quality to as many sectors of our society as possible. In the American West, where the Federal government owns a lot of land NEPA has had a greater impact to date in protecting these lands but it doesn’t do enough for all other areas of the nation where there is little Federal land ownership or environmental protection laws do not exist.

    Finally, I would advocate for an expansion of the part of the NEPA process where alternative options are explored to include radical alternatives. For instance, if 3 billion dollars of tax-payer money is being invested in the construction of a dam to increase our water supply I think it behooves us to see what 3 billion dollars would buy in terms of developing and implementing water-efficient farming techniques, upgrading our piping infrastructure, and passing regulations to require water use efficiency of farmers and municipalities. Water supply is ultimately not going to increase. We can capture all we want but no more is going to fall from the sky, and probably less in the future as our climate gets hotter and drier. Maybe we would see more incremental gains by investing our money in using the resources we have more efficiently rather than loosing other natural resources by covering them up with artificial reservoirs.

    What if we didn’t waste a tremendous amount of our irrigated food crops? What if we switched to more drought-tolerant cultivars, or changed our crops entirely? What if we mandated six inches of mulch cover in orchards and developed a different way of harvesting nuts? What if we actually charged the farmers an appropriate rate for the water they use? What if we cracked down on water “thieves” taking water with illegal pipes out of the state water project canals?

    We cannot be saved by technology alone, but it may make the difference if we invest our resources into efficiency and better practices while we still have some excess resources. Our society is based on market capitalism and the way that we move forward will be investing our societal excess, the “profits,” back into the development of better techniques and technology. As we maximize our use of the Earth’s resources and move into a post-peak economy we will have less and less excess to invest back into infrastructure. We can’t afford to keep operating the way we have, as though there will always be more resources for us to “capture,” we have to start acting as though what we have now is as much or more than we will ever have again.

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  3. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a United States environmental law enacted in 1970 and became a cornerstone of nation’s environmental protections. This law helps federal agencies to make informed and transparent decisions when they evaluate actions that may or may not impact on the environment. The range of actions covered by NEPA includes: making a decision on permit applications, adopting federal land management actions, and constructing highways and other publicly-owned facilities. However, these range of actions was last updated in 1970 and planet earth, population, knowledge, and technology have dramatically changed. Therefore, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) should issue new guidance to provide Federal agencies direction by Five Ws and How method. Who is involved? When will it happen? Where will it change? What will it change? Why do we need this change? How will it change?

    Who is involved? With a lead of CEQ, the Federal agencies, decision-makers, project proponents, and the public should participate in the next revision processes. Using the NEPA process, companies evaluate the environmental, social, and economic effects of their proposed actions. Agencies also provide opportunities for public review and comment on those evaluations. What will it change? The revised NEPA should have more emphasis on the climate change. Climate change is a fundamental environmental issue, and it is a particularly complex challenge. At that time when CEQ released their first annual report, the mean level of atmospheric carbon dioxide was 312 parts per million (ppm), but this rate was about 395 ppm in 2014. This shows that rising global atmospheric greenhouse gas emission concentration is significantly affecting the Earth’s climate. When will it change? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report issued every five or six years. The IPCC fifth assessment report, the latest edition, was released in 2014. The next edition will come out in between 2021 and 2022. I recommend using IPCC fifth assessment report issued in 2014 to look at the effect of a proposed projects on climate change and the impact of climate change on a proposed project. For example, the hazardous fuels reduction projects can cause short-term greenhouse gas emissions and alteration to the carbon cycle. By reducing the greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas field development and avoiding large emissions pulses and effect to the carbon cycle will increase forest resilience and decrease the potential for large-scale wildfire. On the other hand, the impact of expected shifts in rainfall and temperature patterns will affect the seed stock selection for reforestation. Why do we need this change? By focusing on effective consideration of climate change in NEPA reviews will allow agencies to improve the quality of their decisions. The organizations can enhance the outcomes by identifying essential interconnection between a changing climate and the environmental impacts of a proposed action or a project. As we learned from our guest speaker, Melissa Harris from the Bureau of Land Management, agencies meet their NEPA responsibilities by using an Environmental Assessment (EA), or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and Categorical Exclusion (CE). Theia guidance help agencies ensure their analyses of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in an EA or an EIS. How will it change? I would recommend that an organization to (a) select the appropriate level of action for NEPA review to assess the effect of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change; (b) advise agencies to use existing information and tools when evaluating future proposed activities and provide examples of some existing sources of scientific knowledge. For instance, organizations are highly recommended to use the Global Circulation Models or GCMs, which represent physical processes in the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface, are the standard tools currently available to simulate the response of global climate system to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

    In the end, the revised guidance document should inform agencies on how to apply revised NEPA principles to the analysis of climate change through assessing greenhouse gas emissions and effect of climate change for Federal actions subject to NEPA. Once the CEQ releases new NEPA, agencies are encouraged to apply this guidance to all new agency actions moving forward.

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  4. When NEPA was passed in 1970, it marked a new era for the environmental movement in the United States. It reflected a change in the national consciousness and acknowledgement of the deep and lasting effects that unregulated human development has on the natural environment. By requiring that an assessment of environmental impact be conducted, NEPA has allowed for more informed development decisions.

    In short, NEPA has helped mitigate a potentially catastrophic environmental present. However, though the NEPA process allows for its practice has fallen flat. Given the current urgency to mitigate environmental challenges like climate change, the NEPA process should be improved to not only help prevent future catastrophic events but encourage environmental sustainability.

    NEPA has allowed for more transparency through information disclosure and public participation. Though because the Environmental Impact Statement is only produced when an agency submits a formal proposal, community engagement is solicited too far in the process. Not only does this not allow community input in the potential impact of the project design stage but it sends the message that the project is too far the line to really be changed in case of community opposition. This makes the public distrust the process and be less likely to participation in future public hearing opportunities. The Environmental Impact Statement should be required at an earlier stage of the planning process and more resources should be allocated to ensure wide public outreach that gauges feedback that is representative of the community.

    Second, NEPA should require agencies to mitigate environmental impact. Under the current regulation, agencies are required to identify alternatives to reduce or avoid environmental damage but are not required to choose an alternative that will produce the least amount of damage. Although the process of examining alternative may lead to better alternatives being chosen, the regulation ultimately has no teeth if it can’t require agencies to choose the best alternative, which would help avoid the cumulative impact of development decisions that are not as good as they should be.

    Finally, environmental impact should be thought about more broadly to consider how economic externalities and social impact could disrupt larger systems. For example, can a project cause the displacement of communities? Displacement could have regional impact if large movements of people put pressure on the infrastructure of towns and cities requiring more development that has the potential to cause more environmental harm.

    In general, NEPA process should allow for decisions that give more value to the environment by encouraging projects that minimize resource consumption.

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  5. With a long history of events which have taken its toll on the environment, the US government passed NEPA in the 1970s to control these activities. The NEPA or the National Environmental Policy Act is an environmental policy that promotes the enhancement of the environment which begins with defining the said project to determine its impact on the environment.

    The process of NEPA involves determining if the project can be excluded by doing a quick checklist, followed by an environmental assessment, followed by an Environmental Impact Statement of the project. The NEPA helps the federal agency in the management of the project, engagement of stakeholders and involving the public to a certain level before approving the project and its impact on the environment.

    The NEPA is a great tool to control the impacts of a project. But it does have some shortfalls. Firstly, the ability to determine the context and intensity of the project and what might be a significant impact lies in the hands of the agency doing the assessment. Secondly, NEPA is also a process that pulls in community engagement in the decision-making process, but it might be a time-consuming process which could establish various ideas of interest within. And third, that the process might involve a detailed and rigorous analysis which is time-consuming and with Governments changing over time, an impactful project might resurface at a later time.

    So, what can we do to make NEPA more effective?
    It is important to note that NEPA is purely an assessment tool and does not suggest alternatives to the problem the projects are causing. NEPA, to better its process of assessment and reporting could include a stage of mitigation so that a project once passed does not resurface, instead, ample steps are taken to reiterate the project’s intentions. With technological advances, it would be beneficial for the federal agency to create a faster and easier method to implement the process of analysis and this could even extend to the public community in the form of polls, surveys which are more effective and faster in determining the stand of the locals. This will enable NEPA to be more accessible, with greater outreach than its paper version.

    To summarise, with climate change issues surfacing, the NEPA should try to include mitigation of projects to ensure least impacts and be more accessible through electronic systems. Also, with changing times, the NEPA should try to stay ahead of issues to ensure that we are moving forward and not backward like in earlier days of smog and rivers catching fire.

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  6. America had gone through many dark events with seriously bad environmental impacts before The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was issued by congress and signed by President Richard Nixon. The production of NEPA was meant to require federal agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of their discretionary actions and mandate the federal to disclose the action, including its alternatives and impacts to the public before undertaking the action. Compared to the past we came from, NEPA is very much important. Its goal is to foster and create a better future in which man and nature can both exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the requirement of present and future American generations. this goal undoubtedly corresponds with the concept of sustainability not harming the right of future generations to obtain resources.

    Although NEPA is a good environmental policy act compared with nothing, there is still much room for us to improve it. While NEPA is a solely procedural requirement, how can we make sure that the advice and analysis it provides are carefully reviewed and adopted by the federal agencies? The agency is not constrained any more after clearly stating the important environmental impacts so that it can determine freely whether other values outweigh the environmental costs. The court also would not consider whether the agency’s decision is reasonable or not if only the agency follows the procedure and presents the analysis of environmental impacts. But what kind of values would be defined as outweighing the environmental impacts? Who would be qualified enough to make such judgement? What if the environment values the most because it not only influences our present life but also the life of our future generations? The future environment may vary due to our current choice. In order not to compromise the benefits of future, we should make NEPA become a substantive requirement, not being only procedural any longer. The purpose of NEPA is to build a healthy and better environment, so why don’t we take this purpose seriously and produce more profound and strict regulations for it?

    Here I have a suggestion of combining the goal of making it more substantive with encouraging more people from community to participate in this process. It is known that whenever a public hearing is hold there are always people who are willing to join absent due to various reasons. Moreover, agency officials often met people coming up with strange questions and suggestions which cannot be easily solved, or the hostility of them because they are against any change. To solve this problem, the agency officials can upload an outline of the project no more than 10 pages online while the community people are required to read this outline and pass a test to prove that they fully understand what can be changed. Then they can vote for different items or programs of the project. If the voters for an option exceeds a certain number, then the option must be implemented because this method represents the voice of majority.

    Finally, in addition to the substantive requirement, I would also highly recommend implementing mitigation whenever it is feasible. NEPA requires EIS to submit alternatives and mitigation measures that can be taken to reduce environmental effects. However, what is the purpose and value of this if the federal agency is not required to implement them? The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) also requires the mitigation but it also requires the mitigation to be executed. Even if the mitigation cannot fully cover the environmental effects, it would still be a great progress and creates a more productive harmony for our future generations.

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  7. On behalf of the MLA/EP of University of California at Berkeley, let me express my understanding of NEPA process. Until today, NEPA has been around fifty years since it was initiated in 1970. As an international student from urban planning, I was thrilled to see that there is an instrument in environmental planning that gathering different power to defend for environmental justice. The United sets a good example for the whole world in environmental planning process. It was on the NEPA programs where I witnessed the power of public can be expressed properly. But still, I also witness the over dominate capital power in actual construction programs. This is where I learned that there is still long way to go before balancing different power system to protect our living condition.
    Firstly, the legislation powerless of NEPA prevents NEPA to be a strong instrument of environmental protection. There is no exact environmental regulation in NEPA, which demise the effect of environmental damage mitigation. NEPA is only on federal planning process that concentrates on creating EIA document output instead of outcomes. Those powerless turns the EIA of construction plans into a process. Like some tall building construction plans in downtown Berkeley, absence of exact height limits in downtown Berkeley makes the tall building can be built no matter it blocks the views of UC campus or not. We need to have a profound regulation system to define the boundary of protection and development.
    Moreover, the public power is NEPA system needs to be enhanced. We need to give public more access to the planning information. It’s fairly to say that the public power is the most crucial element in balancing the capital power and political power. Currently, the only way to express this power is public sue in NEPA. This process is relies largely on the public awareness, which is unstable and objective in environmental protection. So we need to be more active in educating and opening information access in environmental planning.
    I came here because I believe that NEPA could be a cradle for balanced power system of environmental protection to grow. I trust that we can go further in these areas and make our home a better place. I believe that after 50 years, I can drink the water in downstream of Mississippi and thank us that we have made a right choice for us.

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