The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law New Year’s Day of 1970 by President Nixon. And, it’s what Obama committed to use before Christmas 2014 for bringing commonsense guidance to every sort of government construction project. Wildlife Defenders writer Noah Matson points out: “NEPA is one of the most important environmental laws that most people have never heard of.”
Obama isn’t calling for government agencies to pick the most eco-friendly approach to development. But he wants NEPA protocol to be followed: it calls for an analysis of the environmental impact of every project being planned, giving government staff the chance to weigh the financial costs of building against the environmental ones. This brilliant approach will forever change the development game, as truth is an irresistibly compelling force and when people are forced to look upon it, they can’t avoid being transformed. Until now, environmental costs of construction have been disregarded through the simple expedient of ignoring that they exist.
One of the key ways that NEPA advances this policy is by instituting a sound, transparent planning approach to large-scale government decisions. Before taking an action that could have a significant effect on the environment, NEPA requires those involved to develop alternative ways to achieve the same goal, and to evaluate the environmental impacts (good and bad) that each different approach would have. For instance, if the goal is to enable commuters to travel between two cities, the alternatives might be a highway that cuts straight through a wetland, a longer highway going around it, or a new rail line. NEPA requires the agency to lay out and weigh the pros and cons of each approach.
We can expect GOP politicians to stand on their heads and bawl like babies to protest meaningful ecological analysis of any development project. They’re only about profit at this point; are owned by major corporate interests and have put concerns for nature, clean air and water on the shelf. But NEPA is a good thing, and pulling it more effectively into play is a characteristically impressive Obama policy move.