Ever since President Nixon visited China, significantly contributing to a thawing of the Cold War, the phrase “Nixon in China” has referred to any situation where a leader makes a policy move that would have been more expected by a leader of the opposition party. The notion is that such surprising acts of statesmanship can unlock political gridlock.
Unfortunately, Nixon in China moments are notable precisely because they are so rare. And so we turn to President Trump’s proposed revisions to NEPA.
Although some of my environmentalist friends may disagree with me, anyone who’s ever built anything complicated knows that NEPA needs reform. Environmental opposition to reforming NEPA is particularly ironic given the number of large infrastructure projects we’re going to need to site in order to address climate change. Electrifying the grid is going to require not just numerous offshore wind projects, but significant new transmission, both on- and offshore. Those projects require rigorous environmental review. They also require rigorous environmental review that is coordinated, efficient, and non-duplicative.
Thus, changes designed to get reviews done faster? Count me supportive. Changes requiring that there be a lead agency? Who can really object to that? Allowing the private project proponent rather than the licensing agency to conduct the environmental review? That’s the way it’s done in many states, including my very blue Commonwealth of Massachusetts. No one who’s ever built a project in Massachusetts would ever argue that that allows developers to get away with anything.
And yet, this is Trump. And Trump did not stop with common sense procedural changes. Instead, we get a smorgasbord of miscellaneous changes favored by various Trump supporters. Two prominent ones are elimination of any requirement to assess cumulative impacts and elimination of any requirement to assess indirect impacts. And the Administration doesn’t even have the grace to admit that it is trying to leave climate change out of NEPA.
Maybe the next Democratic President will give us a real Nixon in China moment and support changes to NEPA that make it work better without weakening it.