The Environmental Harm In the Debt Ceiling Bill

The Inflation Reduction Act saved the economy. But did you know that it contains provisions that weaken environmental protection?

One of those provisions changes the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). First enacted in 1970, NEPA was the first major environmental law in the U.S. The bill required federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of any significant proposed federal actions before making decisions. 

The changes to NEPA from the debt ceiling bill include the following: 

  • Currently, NEPA requires submitting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) within two years of the date a federal agency determines that an EIS is required and within a year for Environmental Assessments. 
  • An EIS is limited to 150 pages in most cases, and there is a 300-page limit for analyses of “extraordinary complexity.” An EA is limited to 75 pages.
  • Allows project sponsors to write their environmental reviews.
  • Allows federal agencies to adopt any categorical exclusion created by one of more than 80 agencies. 
  • If more than one federal agency is involved in a decision, the federal government designates a lead agency to conduct an environmental analysis.
  • The obligation to consider environmental impacts is limited to those that are “reasonably foreseeable.”

The changes weaken NEPA. Creating timelines and page limits will rush some big infrastructure projects. Allowing project sponsors to write their environmental reviews is a conflict of interest. These changes will expedite the process of obtaining federal approvals for infrastructure projects and weaken the ability of communities to have input about proposed projects that would impact the environment. 

The Mountain Valley Pipeline

Completing the Mountain Valley Pipeline is another provision of the debt ceiling bill that weakens environmental protection. The 303-mile MVP project traverses West Virginia and Virginia’s mountains, rivers, and farmlands. Federal agencies previously denied permits for water quality and environmental justice concerns. The bill requires that all permits for the MVP be issued within 21 days after President Biden signed it into law. It prohibits other federal agencies from revoking their approvals of it. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in 2016. The EIS cited numerous environmental impacts of the MVP, including forests. The pipeline would cross 245 miles of forest. During construction, it would impact 935 acres of contiguous interior forest classified as high to outstanding quality in Virginia. In West Virginia, the pipeline would permanently impact 865 acres of core forest areas. Around 186 acres of the Jefferson National Forest will be affected by a 500-foot-wide utility corridor, which would open the site to future infrastructure. 

The MVP also impacts waterways, national scenic areas, threatened or endangered species, and soils:

  • The MVP would cross 986 water bodies, including three prime aquifers and one Source Water Protection Area. 
  • It would cross the Appalachian Trail, the Weston and Gauley Bridge Turnpike, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Brush Mountain Inventoried Roadless Area.
  • Construction would disturb around 4,189 acres of soils classified as having the potential for severe water erosion.
  • In the vicinity of the projects are 22 federally listed threatened, endangered, candidate, or special concern species and 20 state-listed or special concern species.

Tarnishing President Biden’s Environmental Legacy

President Biden has ambitious environmental goals, including achieving a net zero emissions economy by 2050. However, the changes to NEPA and the approval of the MVP go against that goal. They represent concessions to Republicans and Democratic Senator Manchin. Both tarnish his environmental legacy and make it harder for him to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions

“President Biden has betrayed the American people,” said Ariel Moger, Government and Political Affairs Director at Friends of the Earth. “After initially proclaiming he wouldn’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, he gifted MAGA extremists legislation filled with polluter giveaways and devastating spending limitations.” 

Photo by Scott Longerbeam on Unsplash

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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