With the stroke of a pen (and an impressively inarticulate signing statement), President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on New Year's Day in 1970, and put in place the requirement for federal agencies to explain to the public the environmental consequences of proposed government actions. The explanation is provided in 'environmental impact statements.' This year, the White House Council on Environmental Quality took public comment on potential revisions that would affect impact statements and other changes to existing regulations. Those regulations have not seen major changes since 1986.
A quick summary of what we think could be improved with revisions to the regulations:
- Absolutely! Create page limits. The documents no longer serve the purpose of the law which was to inform the public about the consequences of government action. I doubt even experts very often read or can understand the 1,000-15,000 page impact statements that are typically produced today.
- Move beyond paper and PDFs to make documents visual, interactive and web-based. People consume visual information faster, understand it better and remember it longer.
- Page limits will probably never stand up in court, but if CEQ established requirements for agencies to consider the trade-offs of including information versus the impacts of greater complexity and content on the public's ability to read and comprehend the documents, it could push impact statements to a place that would provide far more public value.
- When projects find a way to offset environmental impacts by building beneficial components into the action, reward them with faster and easier paperwork. The Obama Administration already made this recommendation, but agencies haven't used it. Lean in with the regulations and require agencies to make this incentive a real one.
- A ballpark estimate is that more than $0.5 billion is spent on developing impact statements, assessments and implementing monitoring requirement. Most of the data collected during the process is buried and lost in PDFs, paper files and quickly abandoned single-use websites. Put in place modern requirements for accessible, machine-readable data storage and sharing. Such requirements and standards are increasingly common for other parts of the federal government.