The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 was the first major federal environmental law of the modern era. NEPA provides a process for environmentally sensitive decision-making without mandating any specific outcomes. It accomplishes this goal by requiring information exchange and public processes, with the hope that better informed citizens and government agencies will make better decisions.
NEPA’s central legal requirement is that federal agencies prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) whenever a proposed major federal action will significantly affect the quality of the human environment. Professor Bradley Karkkainen, a leading expert on NEPA, explains that at its best, NEPA’s EIS process provides a “combustible blend of information, transparency, and political accountability [which] creates powerful pressures on agency decisionmakers to avoid the most environmentally damaging courses of action, and to mitigate environmental harms when it is cost effective to do so.” However, since its passage, NEPA’s EIS process has been abused, avoided, and undermined by federal agencies that want to avoid openly discussing the environmental impacts of their projects and decisions. But with the new administration, there is new optimism that NEPA will be used to help the federal government address pressing environmental challenges such as climate change.
To explore the many ways that NEPA can be used to address new environmental problems, the Environmental Law Institute and the George Washington University Law School have partnered with the White House Council on Environmental Quality to host NEPA at 40: How a Visionary Statute Confronts 21st Century Environmental Impacts. The event is next week in Washington DC, March 23-24, and while registration is closed, a live webcast is available for free. Nancy Sutley, President Obama’s appointment to Chair the Council on Environmental Quality, will kick things off and then be followed by numerous experts discussing all aspects of NEPA and proposals for reform. I’ll be speaking about NEPA’s international (and potentially interstate) dimension, specifically how public environmental review processes can be used to address transboundary pollution and water management problems, an issue of obvious concern in the Great Lakes region.
Update: Gotta love WiFi - I'm at the NEPA conference in DC now, sitting next to a reporter who just filed her story on it, already posted on the NY Times website here. Talk about instant feedback, the world moves quickly these days.