Saturday, July 09, 2005

Conservatives Want To Strip Policy Allowing Public Involvement in Environmental Decisions

Following heavy lobbying from various corporate interests, the Bush Adminstration and conservatives in Congress are trying to strip a nearly four-decade rule allowing public involvement in government decisions affecting the environment.

In this latest example of conservatives choosing Corporate America over individual rights, conservatives are trying to place broad limits on the National Environmental Policy Act. The Nixon-era statute, known as the Magna Carta of environmental law, requires the government to guarantee the public information and a forum on environmental actions that could harm natural surroundings or disturb neighborhoods.

The federal government takes an estimated 50,000 actions each year — including building campgrounds in national forests and plotting the routes of superhighways. Each of those actions, involving federal land, funds and permits, is subject to scrutiny under NEPA.

A number of industries, including mining, timber, energy, construction, ranching and farming, have argued that the law has held up progress on everything from highway construction to drilling for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains.

But the number of NEPA-related lawsuits has been minimal. Just 137 in 2001 and 150 in 2002, according to the nonprofit Environmental Law Institute in Washington. That's .0003. Put another way, the public seeks to get involved in just three of every 1,000 government actions. Meanwhile, the number of full environmental impact statements required under the statute has declined from up to 3,000 a year in the 1970s to about 500 annually, according to the University of Minnesota.

But that's not good enough for Corporate America and its conservative friends in Washington.

"It has been used as a stick in the spokes of the wheels of progress," Russ Brooks, an attorney with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times for a July 7 story. According to its website, the foundation supports Bush in his efforts to fight "hard-core environmentalist organizations."

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The Bush Administration, working with their lackeys in Congress, says it wants to "reform" the act. Critics say they want to "gut" it.

So far, conservatives have been able to exempt some categories of federal actions from NEPA assessments. And they aren't done. The energy bill passed by the House would insulate certain oil and gas drilling projects on public lands from NEPA reviews. Although the Senate version of the bill does not include the exemptions, conservationists are concerned that the House exemptions will resurface in a final bill.

"NEPA is at a crossroads," Bradley C. Karkkainen, a University of Minnesota law professor who is an expert on the statute, told the Times. "We could end up undoing 35 years of progress or [providing] a NEPA that can address the environmental challenges of the 21st century. It could go either way."

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