The Access Initiative

Stimulus or Environment – Must We Choose?

By Seema Kumar (Posted: February 6, 2009) 

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the infamous stimulus package that is regarded as the much needed bandage to the ailing U.S. economy, is locked in Congressional tension. If passed, the Act would inject an almost $900 billion into federal programs and projects, with the explicit purpose of creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, advancing energy efficiency, and restoring credit confidence. Amendments to the bill have been aggressively tossed back and forth in the name of urgency and relevance to stimulation, and one in particular has enraged environmentalists.

U.S. Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, in a February 4, 2009 press release, depicted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as a red-tape inhibitor, which is hindering the implementation of “shovel-ready” projects that are otherwise prepared to proceed with construction, but for a NEPA mandate that requires the environmental impacts of federally-funded projects be reviewed and mitigated. Senator Barrasso’s amendment specifically seeks to “streamline” the NEPA process with a 270-day deadline to complete an environmental review for stimulus package projects. Under the current NEPA provisions, environmental reviews are not subject to such deadlines.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce along with a band of business representatives have endorsed Barrasso’s amendment. In fact, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been a long-time advocate to revise NEPA, as evident from a Comment of its Initial Findings and Draft Recommendations on improving NEPA it submitted to the NEPA Task Force on February 6, 2006. The Comment characterizes NEPA as a “weapon to delay and eventually terminate, through attrition, proposed projects that some people oppose.”

According to Steven Biel, Greenpeace’s global warming campaign director, NEPA “is an absolutely essential review to ensure public involvement in public works decisions… There are more than enough shovel-ready projects out there that have already undergone NEPA reviews. There is absolutely no reason why this process needs to be waived.”

In response to Barrasso, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (Democrat-California) quickly retorted with an amendment of her own, which would require that any project that is not in compliance with NEPA either finalize its review or be replaced by another project that has a final review.

As the Senate readies to vote on the stimulus package, for the sake of the economy and the environment, it is crucial that President Obama emphasizes the purpose of this bill – jobs, infrastructure, energy efficiency, and credit confidence – and asks Congress some probing questions:

How is it logical to argue whether projects that have not conducted a proper environmental assessment should violate existing law while projects that are truly “shovel-ready”, worth millions in dollars and job creation, can benefit from stimulus funds right now?

How does curbing NEPA promote to energy efficiency when the potential consequences of such actions could threaten public health and energy independence?

How can America invest in solid infrastructure without prescribing to the necessary procedures and assessments (including environmental) needed to ensure public safety and durability?