Upon signing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on New Years Day 1970, President Nixon signaled the beginning of a hopeful new era: “[These] must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment.” And make no mistake, the debt was steep.
Nixon signed NEPA to begin fighting back against the cumulative burden of an unequivocally rapacious century. Though in the 1960s and 1970s environmental conditions were no longer as apocalyptic as the black noons of Pittsburgh, cars still averaged 14 miles per gallon, were 7 times as deadly, and were 5 years away from the mass adoption of catalytic converters. Lake Washington absorbed 20 million gallons of sewage per day until 1963, and at the time it was seen as a major environmental victory to dump it into Puget Sound instead. Meanwhile, the construction of I-5 was busy tearing out 10,000 homes in Washington and separating neighborhoods with an impenetrable concrete barrier. And though NEPA passed in 1970, leaded gasoline continued to legally poison our brains until 1996.
Against this runaway destruction, NEPA did something extremely valuable: it yelled “Stop and slow down!” to every project the federal government funded or for which it issued permits. It didn’t relitigate the past, it accepted present conditions as the environmental baseline, and resolved to hold the future to a higher standard. When today we have density without misery, and far cleaner air and water, we have the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and NEPA largely to thank.
Yet NEPA also made change itself the enemy, erroneously sanctifying the status quo as a part of the same environment worthy of protection. Millions of decisions that received no environmental review, such as the Interstate Highway System, today owe us no mitigation. But a 10-foot zero emission bike trail can be set back decades by environmental process.
The EIS process has outlived its usefulness, becoming predominantly a tool for obstruction and delay. Sometimes these appeals serve genuine environmental ends (such as with the Dakota Access Pipeline) but far more often as a way of protecting vested interests against the specter of positive aggregate change. In just the latest example, Seattle will be required to study the ‘environmental impacts’ of housing people closer to where they want to live and work, on land that already houses people.
We don’t need the repeal of environmental review, but instead a clearer focus on inducing positive outcomes rather than avoiding merely negative ones. Practically speaking, this could mean things like agreeing on a set of principles (such as ‘Housing and transit and bikes are good. Do more of those.’) and aggressively expanding Categorical Exclusions for those projects.
When environmental goods are held back in the name of the environment and present conditions continue unabated, the process is broken. In the 4-5 years it takes for a Link EIS, cars will make 400 million trips on I-5 through Downtown Seattle, 50,000 new people will call our city home, and tens of thousands more will swallow long commutes because rich people outbid them for undersupplied housing. Those are environmental impacts too. The status quo needs an environmental review.