Allison Kvien, MJLST Staff Member
The Court has never reversed a lower court ruling on the ground that the lower court failed to apply NEPA with sufficient rigor. Indeed, as described at the outset, the Court has not even once granted review to consider the possibility that a lower court erred in that direction and then heard the case on the merits. The Court has instead reviewed cases only when NEPA plaintiffs won below, and then the Court has reversed, typically unanimously.
Because environmental plaintiffs have never won before the Supreme Court on a NEPA issue, many view the statute as a weak tool and have wanted to strengthen or overhaul NEPA.
The president’s initiative has identified a number of permitting improvements, but it does not include a serious effort to force multiple agencies to align their permitting processes. A key to forcing multiple agencies to work together on project reviews and approvals is found in an unlikely place: NEPA. The statute is overdue for a makeover that will strengthen how it identifies and analyzes environmental impacts for federal decisionmakers. In doing so, it can provide the framework that will require multiple agencies to act as one when reviewing large projects.
Though Obama’s proposal may not address improvements for NEPA itself, could it help those who have long wished to give NEPA an overhaul? This is not the first time in the last couple years that the President has talked about using NEPA. In March 2013, Bloomberg released news that Obama was, “preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects, from pipelines to highways.” With NEPA being key to some of President Obama’s initiatives, could there be more political capital to address some changes for NEPA that have been long-wanted? There might be some hope for NEPA just yet.