‘The Driving Force Is to Help Polluters Get Their Permits Faster’ – CounterSpin interview with Brett Hartl on NEPA


Janine Jackson interviewed the Center for Biological Diversity’s Brett Hartl on the National Environmental Policy Act for the January 10, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: You see the horrifying pictures of Australia’s red skies, of the charred bodies of animals—more than a billion, we’re now told—killed in the bush fires, along with at least 25 people. And you think, “How is this happening?” And then you hear officials promising defiantly to keep burning coal, and you think, “How is this happening?”

DeSmog Blog (1/3/20)

Then you read a story like one recently in DeSmog Blog, about how Rick Perry, newly resigned as Trump’s Energy Secretary, has just rejoined the board at Energy Transfer, the pipeline company behind Dakota Access, now seeking to double the flow through that system, and how Energy Transfer just got a $30 million fine for a 2018 explosion in its Revolution Pipeline in Pennsylvania, along with the lifting of the permit bar that blocked it from future pipeline projects.

And you see how this is happening.

Even as we see the reality and know the science, the revolving doors and interlocking boards, and public agencies that are decimated and demoralized, make possible unthinkable power grabs like one currently taking aim at the right of communities to weigh in on our climate future.

Joining us to talk about this undercover maneuver is Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Brett Hartl.

Brett Hartl: Thanks a lot for having me.

JJ: Well, fill folks in. What does the National Environmental Policy Act do, and what would these changes that have been proposed by the Trump administration mean?

BH: Sure. So the National Environmental Policy Act, which everybody calls NEPA for short, is the first law of the modern environmental movement. It was passed in 1970. It just had its 50th anniversary a week ago. So it came before the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and all the others. And what it does is it requires the federal government, every agency, to make sure that they consider the consequences, the environmental consequences, of their upcoming, proposed activities: whether it’s building a coal mine, logging a forest, drilling for oil and gas, but even things like, you know, building a new highway, relatively noncontroversial items that might actually have unintended consequences.

It also requires the federal government to consider the voices of the people in the process of making a decision, by soliciting public comment, by providing the public with critical information about what might happen if something were to proceed or not. So it’s a very democratic law that’s designed to give everybody a voice in big-picture government decision-making. And for 50 years, we’ve had this law on the books; we’ve had regulations that set the rules of the game for how this process plays out.

Now, for the first time, we’re seeing with the Trump administration a very partisan attack, basically taking a sledgehammer to these key regulations that will make this entire environmental review very much a paperwork exercise, cursory, no real discussions of the real-world impacts, and also limit the public’s information about upcoming actions, limit the ability to comment by putting in these arbitrary deadlines for completion. And the driving force in all of this is to help special interests and polluters get their permits faster, whether they want to drill for oil and gas, or dig coal out of the ground, or other really destructive activities. That’s what’s motivating these changes, because they don’t help the public, they don’t help the environment; this is just the latest gift to the swamp.

JJ: And these changes tip their hand, if they didn’t already, by saying explicitly that you don’t need to consider impacts, or potential impacts, from climate disruption, isn’t that so? Or do they just mean that?

BH: Yeah, its the latter. So what they’ve done is, in the regulations up ‘til now, there is a requirement to consider what they call “cumulative impacts.” And that sort of encapsulates climate, because, obviously, no one thing, like you said, destroys the climate. But if you drill 10,000 new wells, or you mine a billion new tons of coal, those cumulative impacts—the greenhouse gas emissions—that’s what drives climate change. That’s what drives these crazy fires in Australia; it’s not just one project, it’s all of them together.

And, basically, what they’re saying is, from this day forward, you don’t have to consider what happens if you build another fossil fuel, coal-fired power plant, or log a forest, or drill another 10,000 oil wells in the West. So it’s somewhat indirect, it’s a little bit wonky, but the upshot is that climate will just be ignored, as if climate change is not happening, when it comes to environmental reviews moving forward.

JJ: And of course, that’s huge. I mean, if you pretend that there aren’t any costs associated with it, then your profit is going to look better, deals are going to look better, if you can ‘pretend away’ certain kinds of impacts. You almost want to laugh at it, but this is going to have—if it’s passed, and we’ll talk about that, if it goes through—could have devastating impacts.

BH: Yeah. And I’ll say, too, that cumulative impacts is not just climate. I mean, climate is very important.

JJ: Right.

BH: But cumulative impacts, the way I describe it, that is the actual assessment of the real world in all of its complexities and nuances and feedback loops and unintended consequences and tipping points. It’s the reason that water pollution gets worse the farther downstream you go; it’s because one particular instance of water pollution is bad, but when they accumulate, that’s what makes people sick.

You know, air pollution is worse as it gets more and more; in terms of breathing, the people that suffer are the ones that are feeling these cumulative impacts. Wildlife populations feel cumulative impacts. If you are doing more and more seismic exploration offshore, it’s that cumulative noise in the ocean that harms whales.

JJ: You could say it’s “penny wise, pound foolish,” but the deeper question is really, who will pay?

BH: Exactly.

Brett Hartl

Brett Hartl: “The upshot is that climate will just be ignored, as if climate change is not happening, when it comes to environmental reviews moving forward.”

JJ: Some media accounts are dutifully reporting the government’s assertion that these changes are about efficiencies–you know, regulations hold up projects. We talked about this a couple of years ago with regard to efforts to ”improve” the Endangered Species Act. We’re not being cynical, are we, to say that the problem is not that, in this case, NEPA didn’t work, but that it does work?

BH: Trump and his cronies love to highlight the anecdotes of the projects that take forever. And, yeah, every once in a while there’s one or two outlier projects that take a very, very long time. The reason is usually they’re really, really stupid projects, that also probably have huge funding issues. And they stall out because there’s no money to do them, or there’s not enough staff to process them, because Republicans have been so effective at strangling the government in terms of funding, so that staff are just overwhelmed all the time. Most projects get done in a pretty reasonable amount of time.

Going slow to allow people to provide inputs and thoughts about what might happen is worth thinking about for a year or two or three. Because if you force these arbitrary deadlines, you basically don’t allow for the possibility that something unexpected might happen. And that’s how you really get things like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, or another pipeline spilling or breaching. Catastrophes happen. And if you don’t think through the possible consequences at the front end, someone’s going to suffer.

So I think it’s always better to make the right decision, take time, and make sure you’ve thought it through. The only ones that really benefit from this notion of expediting it is, you know, the industry people. The people that have to live with this on the ground, suffer. And we see it time and time again, you know; you see it in low-income communities and communities of color. They bear the brunt of it, as does the environment and wildlife.

So yeah, every once in a while, a project goes a really, really long time. But most of the time, NEPA works pretty darn well.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. You can find their work on this and other issues online at biologicaldiversity.org. Bret Hartl, thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

BH: Thanks for having me.

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