Major U.S. environmental policy bears scrutiny in midlife

02/13/04

SEATTLE – A major piece of U.S. environmental legislation is bracing for its 35th birthday.

At home, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) probably won't get a party for its 35th, and it's having something of a midlife crisis. Yet abroad it's revered and copied.

"Nobody's really revisited this statute since 1979; it's something of a forgotten environmental statue to many," said Daniel Bronstein, a professor of resource development at Michigan State University. "But it really has changed everything, and made us a leader in the world in environmental policy."

Bronstein leads a panel discussion entitled "The National Environmental Policy Act at 35 – Does it Have a Future?" today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting. The group will examine how NEPA fits into current U.S. environmental policy.

NEPA was born in the Nixon administration in 1970 and gave the nation's citizens their first formal ability to have input in the decision-making process of projects that have environmental impact.

It was through NEPA that the environmental impact statement was born.

"Its original intent was to give the environment equal status in the Office of the President to employment," Bronstein said. "It's never done that, but it has had major impact. It forces an explicit statement of the environmental trade-offs you're making. "

Like many in mid-life crisis, NEPA's major milestones now seem routine. Other impact has been taken over by younger upstarts – such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

But across the globe, Bronstein said, NEPA is a powerhouse. The concept of full study of the environmental consequences of governmental actions has been adopted on a national level in more than 100 countries, according to the International Association for Impact Assessment. Similar requirements at the less than national level bring the count of legal requirements to more than 200 countries.

Bronstein said NEPA's strength still lies in the power it gives groups to oppose local projects that may threaten the environment – such as highway development.

"We need to take our position as a world leader seriously," Bronstein said. "We give advice when asked, and we want it to be good advice."

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