Today, White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair Brenda Mallory delivered virtual remarks during the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP) Annual Conference.
Chair Mallory’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, follow:
Hello. Thank you for inviting me to join you today.
I want to first thank the National Association of Environmental Professionals for hosting such a great conference.
There are few groups of people who know as much about America’s environmental laws – and the National Environmental Policy Act in particular – as well as you.
So it is truly an honor to be with you – just a few weeks into the job – as the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
President Biden has gotten us all off to a fast start. Just yesterday, he was in Dearborn, Michigan visiting a Ford facility for its unveiling of the all-electric F-150 vehicle.
It was just a small glimpse into the future that he wants to build:
A future where the fight against climate change creates jobs – good-paying union jobs – here in the United States
Where we are cutting pollution in communities that have been left out for too long.
And where we are designing and building the technologies that will power our future.
That is why the President has proposed the American Jobs Plan – the largest infrastructure investment in decades. It is an investment that is critically needed: for our economy and for our environment.
As the President says, this is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy.
And how we rebuild really matters. That is why the National Environmental Policy Act is so important, and is at the top of my mind when I think of this challenge.
As you all know, administering NEPA is one of the core functions of CEQ.
As we move the American Jobs Plan forward – yes – we need efficient permitting approaches.
But we also need to be building smarter. That means thoroughly examining environmental consequences and engaging – truly engaging – affected communities.
The President has tasked CEQ with three specific actions related to NEPA analysis and permitting:
1. He has asked us to closely review CEQ’s 2020 regulations implementing NEPA;
2. We are to review and update CEQ’s guidance on accounting for greenhouse gas emissions in NEPA analyses; and
3. Together with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), we’ve been asked to review permitting for infrastructure projects and deliver an efficient environmental review and permitting process that ensures robust public participation and environmental protection.
The CEQ team is hard at work evaluating all available measures to help advance sound and efficient environmental review and Federal permitting.
We want to do this in a manner that enhances public participation, respects Tribal sovereignty, protects our Nation’s resources, and delivers better environmental and community outcomes.
But, we also recognize that we must execute these goals in a way that is timely and effective, so that we can actualize the infrastructure vision the President has put forward in the American Jobs Plan.
Think for a moment about renovating a house that needs fixing up.
You don’t just start by knocking down a wall without checking what’s above it or under it. If you do, the roof might fall in. And that will really slow you down.
Just like fixing up a house, to do infrastructure projects right, you start by looking carefully around. You create a good blueprint. You make sure the foundation is solid. And you consider how it will affect the neighborhood.
These are the services that a good, sound, and thoughtful environmental review process can provide.
I’ll put it plainly: NEPA is indispensable to building strong, clean, sustainable, and equitable infrastructure.
Yet, all too often, NEPA is identified as the barrier to building and completing new infrastructure projects. But when you look into the situation, it’s always more complicated than that.
First, only a tiny subset of projects subject to NEPA – less than 1% — even require preparation of a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS).
The vast majority of projects subject to NEPA review are categorical exclusions or shorter Environmental Assessments.
The National Association of Environmental Professional’s own Annual Report tells us that only 170 final EISs were published across the federal government in 2019.
The small subset of actions that require an EIS are complex decisions with lasting consequences.
They deserve rigorous analysis and public involvement. A one-size-fits-all approach to environmental review does not make sense.
I sometimes see inflated figures cited for how long it takes to complete environmental impact statements. But high averages are often distorted by outliers and fail to tell the whole story.
In fact, we know that the leading cause of project delays is the lack of funding to complete projects.
Let’s be clear: we want to advance an efficient and workable process that results in valuable, infrastructure and economic development projects being completed. What we don’t want is to cut corners, disenfranchise local communities, and fail to advance larger policy goals for a sustainable future.
The data shows that the coordination achieved through NEPA procedures can expedite rather than delay project approval.
In fact, a 2019 study in Ecology Law Quarterly found that NEPA plays a constructive role in coordinating federal and state permitting efforts for critical habitat designations.
The default assumption should not be that the best result for infrastructure is to eliminate review.
Turning to another topic that receives a lot of attention – NEPA litigation.
Critics often blame NEPA for undue litigation, but the data doesn’t support this picture. Only one in every 450 NEPA reviews – a fraction of a percent – result in litigation.
A recent academic study by the University of Utah College of Law looked at the link between litigation rates and EIS preparation times, and found that shorter EIS preparation times were associated with an increased risk of litigation.
Imagine, if you will, a world missing key features of NEPA. No chance for public engagement. No obligation to consider brilliant, community-led alternatives. No obligation to even disclose the climate and air pollution effects of projects. That’s not a world I want to live in.
And that’s why at CEQ we are taking so seriously the President’s charge to review the 2020 NEPA Regulations.
Our goal is not only to foster more efficient environmental reviews, but to also create more effective ones as well.
With a historic and ambitious investment in 21st century infrastructure on the horizon, we also need to direct more resources to our agencies so they can carry out effective environmental reviews.
They must be able to nimbly increase capacity, conduct new programmatic reviews, and engage with diverse stakeholders and communities, including Tribal governments and environmental justice communities.
More effective environmental reviews – not short cuts that leave important environmental issues unaddressed – are the key to efficiently permitting sustainable and equitable infrastructure without undermining environmental protection and community engagement.
I will say it again: NEPA is not the barrier to building the badly-needed infrastructure projects for our nation.
Rather, NEPA provides the strong foundation we need to rebuild better, smarter, and more equitably.
Doing environmental reviews, the right way: listening to communities, avoiding foreseeable problems, designing thoughtfully, and relying on science.
This is how we build things better, build things faster, and build things that last.
We can do this.
Thank you for inviting me to join you today, and I am happy to answer questions.