WASHINGTON, D.C. – In case you missed it, yesterday, on the last day for the public to submit comment on the Trump Administration’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) rulemaking proposal, Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, spoke on the Senate floor to once again urge the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to reverse course on its proposal.
“NEPA enshrines democracy by giving the American people a voice to help decide the fate of federal decisions. For 50 years, NEPA has sought to ensure environmental protection, public health and the notion that the American people have a say in the federal decision-making process,” Senator Carper said in his speech on the Senate floor. “Like our Constitution, NEPA is one of our nation’s most enduring and replicated laws. The same principles of democracy and citizen participation that are enshrined in our Constitution are also enshrined in NEPA.
“We have made changes to our Constitution over the years, but those changes were made rarely and with great forethought. However, just 60 days ago, the Trump Administration proposed a rule that would fundamentally change the NEPA regulations for the first time in its history,” he continued, going on to say that, “any changes to the implementing regulations of this bedrock law – let alone such substantial changes as proposed by CEQ to the NEPA regulations – require careful thought, meticulous deliberation, and bipartisanship. Consequential changes should be made rarely and with great forethought.”
Senator Carper’s speech fell on the March 10th deadline for public comment on CEQ’s proposed NEPA rule changes. In January, Senator Carper and 166 of his Congressional colleagues urged the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to extend the public comment period for its proposal and give Americans sufficient time to understand its impacts and provide input, but last week, CEQ rejected said request.
Below is Senator Carper’s floor speech, as prepared for delivery:
“Mr. President, today I rise to discuss the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which is often referred to as the “Magna Carta” of environmental laws. When I think about our nation’s most illustrious documents, I’m reminded of the true expression of America and its aspirations. I’m reminded of our Declaration of Independence and its embrace of, quote, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
“I’m also reminded of our Constitution. Delaware is known as the First State because it was the first state to ratify the Constitution. That document is the most replicated and enduring constitution in the history of the world. And it is not entirely unlike more recent expressions of America’s values and guiding principles, like the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, or ‘NEPA.’ NEPA has served as one of our bedrock environmental laws for a half century.
“According to its six pages of statute, NEPA’s purpose includes, quote, ‘efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man.’ NEPA enshrines democracy by giving the American people a voice to help decide the fate of federal decisions. For 50 years, NEPA has sought to ensure environmental protection, public health and the notion that the American people have a say in the federal decision-making process.
“Like our Constitution, NEPA is one of our nation’s most enduring and replicated laws. The same principles of democracy and citizen participation that are enshrined in our Constitution are also enshrined in NEPA. We have made changes to our Constitution over the years, but those changes were made rarely and with great forethought. However, just 60 days ago, the Trump Administration proposed a rule that would fundamentally change the NEPA regulations for the first time in its history.
“Earlier this month, I testified at the Council on Environmental Quality’s public hearing in Washington, D.C., and stated that, unlike the Ten Commandments, the NEPA regulations are not written in stone. I understand that. In 1978, there was broad consensus to finalize the NEPA regulations. If we had that same kind of broad consensus today to update certain NEPA provisions, this would be another story. After all, I have always said that if something isn’t perfect, let’s work to make it better. But there is a reason that NEPA is one of the most imitated environmental laws in the world—it has had a lot of success.
“So, any changes to the implementing regulations of this bedrock law – let alone such substantial changes as proposed by CEQ to the NEPA regulations – require careful thought, meticulous deliberation, and bipartisanship. Consequential changes should be made rarely and with great forethought.
“CEQ simply has not aimed to address the needs of all the stakeholders. Witness the universal opposition of the environmental community, NEPA’s most consistent constituency. CEQ has touted this proposal as a way to, quote, ‘modernize’ NEPA; however, the proposal is instead an anachronism, taking us back to a time when construction bulldozed and disconnected communities, before NEPA was enacted in 1970.
“This proposal casts aside any considerations of frontline communities, as well as the severe environmental and health consequences that come with eliminating the requirement to consider cumulative environmental impacts and indirect effects.
“Taking away that requirement is akin to creating a new NEPA mandate that would exclude the impact to air quality – or water quality – from a proposed action. Simply put, it makes no sense. Not only is removing these requirements a bad idea for public health and our environment, but doing so will end up costing taxpayers more when projects aren’t built to be resilient and, as a result, taxpayer investments are quite literally washed away by the next big storm or flood.
“What’s more, this proposal gives the fox the keys to the henhouse by allowing companies to write their own environmental impact statements. That’s a little like offering students self-graded take home exams. This proposal also creates loopholes to avoid environmental review and public input, which is especially harmful to environmental justice communities that are often the targets of industrial investments and projects. I take no joy in saying this, but the proposal before us is one that is, sadly, myopic and ideologically driven. I have repeatedly called on CEQ to withdraw this proposal, and I do so again today.
“Along with the policy, I must also mention CEQ’s refusal to open this notice of proposed rulemaking to greater public involvement that is commensurate with its gravity and scope. In rebuttal to repeated concerns from more than 160 Members of Congress, and literally hundreds of stakeholder organizations, CEQ stated that it is, quote, ‘engaging in extensive public outreach, including through requests for public comments, two hearings and other outreach.’ End quote.
“Just last week, with only three full business days prior to the close of the comment period, CEQ finally told 166 other members of Congress and me that it would refuse to extend the public comment period, thus providing the public as little opportunity as possible to have their voices heard.
“Both CEQ’s reply and its public statements make clear that CEQ believes it somehow deserves extra credit for allowing the public to participate in this rulemaking. Public involvement means not only an opportunity to comment; it means taking those comments seriously and acting upon them.
“Let me be clear: neither this CEQ nor any CEQ gets ‘extra credit’ for the mere act of requesting public comment on America’s bedrock law. CEQ certainly does not deserve extra credit for allowing only 60 days to review and comment on this massive environmental protection rollback. CEQ also does not get extra credit for only two hearings -- in the entire country -- to receive public comment.
“At these hearings, the public needed a ticket and only got three minutes to speak. Think about that. Constraining comments to just a couple of minutes; the idea of requiring ‘tickets,’ as if it’s some kind of prize to participate in something that should be a democratic norm; and the idea of CEQ failing to engage a single speaker in Denver or Washington D.C. Not even one! That doesn’t constitute an open process. It doesn’t even come close. What we have here is a clear sign that CEQ is limiting the involvement of the public and wants the clock to expire before the public can find out what’s in its massive rewrite. That’s what it is.
“To say I am disappointed with CEQ’s response to our concerns is an understatement. NEPA is a 50-year-old law but Americans have been given only 60 days to defend it. NEPA reminds us that our government is one that is of the people, for the people and by the people. But this proposal and this process bear little resemblance to those words of Abraham Lincoln. Sadly, they make a mockery of them.
“I will continue to fight to defend NEPA and the democratic tools it avails to the American people. Thank you. I yield the floor.”