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Battle Over NEPA Puts U.S. Companies in an Awkward Position

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Brands Taking Stands
NEPA

Major corporations have done a good job of leading the clean power revolution, but some are facing new pressure to address other issues both inside and outside of the environmental sphere. Last week, the Donald Trump administration put yet another test before sustainable business leaders when it proposed changing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to streamline federal approvals for major infrastructure projects, including mines and pipelines as well as water infrastructure and highways.

Sustainable business: It’s complicated

High-profile tech companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft routinely garner praise for driving the market for wind and solar power.

That activity in the clean power field can support a strong sustainability platform, but it does not go far enough by itself. Workers at major tech firms have begun to publicly criticize their employers over their environmental policies, among other issues.

Employee activism is a key pressure point because it is a relatively new trend with the potential to attract widespread media attention. In contrast, criticism from environmental organizations has become a routine staple of news coverage.

One recent example is the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. The employee organization has been pressuring Amazon Web Services to stop pitching its custom cloud computing contracts to the oil and gas industry.

Last fall, Amazon threatened to fire at least two workers for speaking out, but the move backfired. Word of the threat surfaced publicly earlier this month, and Amazon has been inundated with a flood of unwanted media attention since then.

NEPA now in the crosshairs

The new Trump administration proposal puts more pressure on tech companies to justify their ties with fossil fuel and mining stakeholders, because the rule change would make it far easier to build new mines, pipelines and other infrastructure.

Announced last Thursday, the new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) proposal would limit the time allowed for environmental review. It would also eliminate the requirement to consider cumulative impacts, meaning that stakeholders would not be required to account for greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on global climate change.

Among supporters of the new proposal are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute. API celebrated the benefits to oil and gas stakeholders in a public statement on January 9: 

“Reforming the NEPA process is a critical step toward meeting growing demand for cleaner energy and unlocking job-creating infrastructure projects currently stuck in a maze of red tape. According to studies, improving permitting could unleash more than a trillion dollars in private-sector investment, which is critical to meeting growing demand for affordable, reliable and cleaner energy.”

That assessment is open to debate. The sustainable investor organization Ceres, for example, points out that businesses and taxpayers will bear the burden when new infrastructure projects are constructed without regard to resiliency and climate risks. Ceres also notes that the new proposal was “long sought by the oil and gas industry based on the claim that the environmental review process is lengthy and burdensome.”

Somewhat ironically, though, the new proposal will most likely create further delays as environmental organizations take their case against it to court.

Changing the media narrative on sustainability

So far, news organizations have framed the reaction to the NEPA proposal as a battle pitting business stakeholders against grassroots environmental organizations, along with the elected officials who support them — collectively referred to as “the greens," as one headline puts it.

That is fair as far as it goes. As of this writing, there has been no particular media coverage of any criticism on the part of tech giants and other major firms, regardless of their support for renewable energy. Instead, news organizations have sought comment from the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and other well-known environmental groups.

Nevertheless, the beginning of a backlash spearheaded by business is beginning to emerge.

One key state to watch is Alaska, where the new proposal would enable construction of the controversial Pebble Mine project, putting the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery at risk.

More broadly, last week the American Sustainable Business Council issued an emphatic criticism of the new proposal, highlighting the impact on businesses outside of the fossil fuel industry.

“Contrary to claims from the administration and the Chamber of Commerce that the rule change will be good for the economy, it will have negative consequence for businesses across sectors,” said Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of the organization.

ASBC lists breweries, seafood, hospitality, tourism and recreation among the major industries that depend on clean waterways and healthy natural habitats.

With 250,000 businesses in its U.S. membership network, ABSC speaks with a loud voice. The question is: Will news organizations listen?

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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