Washington Law Review

Article

Community Empowerment in Decarbonization: NEPA’s Role

December 01, 2021 | 96 Wash. L. Rev. 1511

Abstract: This Article addresses a potential tension between two ambitions for the transition to clean energy: reducing regulatory red-tape to quickly build out renewable energy, and leveraging that build-out to empower low-income communities and communities of color. Each ambition carries a different view of communities’ role in decarbonization. To those focused on rapid build-out of renewable energy infrastructure, communities are a potential threat who could slow or derail renewable energy projects through opposition during the regulatory process. To those focused on leveraging the transition to clean energy to advance racial and economic justice, communities are necessary partners in the key decisions of the transition—including the development of renewable energy projects. The Biden Administration has committed to both ambitions, but there is a gap regarding what role communities will play in policies designed to implement decarbonization.

This Article articulates this “participatory gap” in decarbonization policy and proposes changes to the regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) that start bridging these ambitions. The Article offers proposals that would leverage NEPA’s unique structure to empower communities in decarbonization. Specifically, it argues that NEPA’s regulations should be reformed to require meaningful community engagement and enforce that commitment through a revitalized executive enforcement structure. Contrary to views that more community engagement will slow decarbonization, this Article argues that these reforms would support the rapid transition to renewable energy while also empowering communities and elevating justice as a central value in environmental policy.

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