I understand that so far I’ve under 100 signatures on my petition to President Obama about reforming environmental impact assessment. Not surprising, I suppose, since it’s a fairly esoteric topic and many of those interested in it are also self-interested in maintaining the status quo. I’ve given the effort till March 1, at which point I’ll decide whether to deliver it or forget it.
So please, if you’re inclined to sign it, do so, and please distribute it to others who may do so. Here again is the text of the petition and the URL where it can be signed.
"Please seek amendments to the National Environmental Policy Act, or issue an Executive Order, to require honest, objective impact assessment that respectfully involves and is responsive to the public, and that happens BEFORE decisions are made to promote projects."
Sign at: http://signon.org/sign/president-obama-reform?source=c.fwd&r_by=408029
One gratifying thing is that a number of Indian tribes and tribal members are signing it, even though it’s not explicitly worded to address tribal concerns. I think tribes recognize that rotten, self-serving EIA is causing unnecessary destruction of environments important to them, and short-circuiting the respectful consultation the President Obama and Secretary Salazar keep promising. I hope more tribes and tribal members will sign on, and I very much hope others will, too. Wasting time and money on EIA that just whitewashes proposed projects, fails to consider feasible alternatives, and shuts the public out of decision-making serves no one. In the long run it doesn't help even those who do whitewash EIA, because it erodes the value of such work to the public, and thus undercuts support for even bothering to do it.
I’ve heard from a few in the EIA community who think I’m nuts for tilting at this windmill, and some who think I should instead be working quietly behind the scenes to help the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) improve things from the inside. I’m all for working quietly behind the scenes, and believe it or not have done so fairly effectively from time to time. But I’ve seen no evidence that CEQ or anyone else in this administration is interested in getting help, or for that matter that they even recognize the existence of the problem. Yet the problem seems so obvious; here’s a reminder:
1. Project proponents prevail upon the political system to support particular projects or programs with little or no consideration for their potential environmental impacts.
2. The proponents are then tasked with finding out what those impacts will be, and reporting them to agencies that often have been (or think they’ve been) given their marching orders to “streamline” review.
3. The proponents hire (and hence can fire) the EIA firms that do the studies.
4. The EIA firms give their clients good report cards (how could they do otherwise?), and carefully avoid considering alternatives to the projects they review.
5. The public, and such very interested parties as Indian tribes, are effectively shut out of the process; there may be public hearings and opportunities to review draft reports, but not to influence decision making through serious, good-faith negotiation. Even with tribes – with whom agencies are required by multiple laws to consult – “consultation” is often only a pro-forma matter that wastes time and patience, accomplishing nothing but to wear people down until they acquiesce in disgust.
What should be done? Well, the following is from a letter I sent on December 18 of last year to the president’s senior policy advisor on Native American Affairs and to the Chair of CEQ. Having outlined the problem, and illustrated it with a specific case, I suggested that action be taken to reform the administration’s approach to EIA and tribal consultation, saying:
“Such an approach might have the following elements:
1. Honestly establish what the environmental impacts of proposed actions – including but not limited to “green” projects – are likely to be before supporting and promoting them, and before telling the federal establishment to fast-track their implementation;
2. In the course of such impact assessment, honestly consider a reasonable range of alternative ways to achieve the public purposes of such actions;
3. Do not allow agencies to rely on data on and analyses of impacts and alternatives prepared by project proponents unless they have been thoroughly vetted to eliminate bias;
4. Actually consult with tribes, as well as with other stakeholders, about whether and how to proceed with projects, which alternatives to pursue, and how to mitigate adverse effects; and
5. Don’t lie.”
Yes, that seems pretty simple. Unsurprisingly, my letter has gone unanswered.