Environmental laws are being used to justify oil drilling in Los Angeles, single-family zoning in Minneapolis, and the construction of the border wall.
Anti-immigration activists, a Los Angeles oil and natural-gas company, historic preservationists, and bird enthusiasts make for unlikely bedfellows. But in recent years, they’ve all embraced the power of decades-old environmental laws—not to protect the environment but to defend the status quo.
Stick with me here. Signed into law in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act and its state and local equivalents require federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of major projects before they sign off on them. Supporters argue that NEPA “empowers local communities to protect themselves and their environment.”
But NEPA is more burdensome than it may sound. As the economist Eli Dourado has documented, environmental-impact statements were initially very short—just 10 pages, in some instances. But now they average more than 600 pages, include more than 1,000 pages of appendices, and take four and half years on average to complete.