Blog post by Executive Director David Bancroft
Bill Maher can be a funny guy, but he is misguided when he says that environmental impact statements (EISs) are impeding progress on construction projects, as he did on his September 10 episode of Real Time on HBO. In addition, Maher is blatantly wrong when he lumps EISs into activities that he considers to be “money grabs” and “graft.” Actually, it is quite the opposite. It is those who try to block thorough EISs who slow down wise decision making. And it is only through EISs that project alternatives are typically considered, and that issues such as climate change, biodiversity, sustainability, environmental justice, Indigenous rights, and societal threats are addressed.
With Maher being a comedian, some may ask “why challenge his statements, and give them oxygen?” His program, Real Time, is filled with political satire, and he is watched by many powerful individuals on the liberal left. At the same time, he is an iconoclast, and Maher is one of the few liberal hosts who actually brings on guests from the conservative right. Due to the political diversity of his guests, he is regularly quoted in the leftwing, rightwing and mainstream media. In short, he has influence. Because EISs are so rarely mentioned in everyday conversation, many people are unfamiliar with them, making Maher’s opinion of EISs perhaps the only one they have heard on the subject. This dressing down of the procedure, even if it is mixed with satire, cannot be left to stand in the minds of policy makers and the public.
Maher starts the segment by accurately describing the increasing droughts and wildfires being experienced in the Western United States, while also detailing the more frequent flooding and storm water runoff from heavy rains affecting the eastern half of the nation. Maher offers two solutions to the Western issues: (1) desalinization of Pacific Ocean water, (2) construction of pipelines to carry water from east to west.
In considering these solutions, Maher laments the slow pace of construction in the US, then heralds China for the rapidity of their construction efforts. (It should be noted that many of China’s projects from its Belt & Road program, both domestic and international, could benefit environmentally and socially from a bit more due diligence under an EIS-type effort.)
Expressing his haste to build pipelines at any cost, Maher sounds more like his nemesis, former President Donald Trump, who once said that “nobody knows more about environmental impact statements than me.” Former President Trump, speaking before the United Nations, told the body that too often the focus “has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process.” Sure, one can use a real estate development mindset and ram a project through to get it done, but is it the right project? Additionally, have you built trust with the people affected, and included their ideas in the analysis? That is how successful projects are developed – and that is what EISs do.
The idea of building water pipelines in the US is fraught with many contradictions. First, it would delay making serious decisions on addressing climate change, which is the cause of the drought and 500-year storms. So we would be investing public dollars to address symptoms of the issue, rather than to regulate the activities causing climate change and generating huge private profits. Those who deny climate change as man-made could continue even longer not to recognize the seriousness of the issue and to block all efforts address it. Pipelines of water to the West would reward those political leaders from that region who have been adamantly opposed to climate change legislation for the past 30 years.
Second, there is strong regional political opposition in the US that goes back decades to inter-basin transfers of water. Droughts in the West are not new. In environmental circles it is often stated that water issues in the East revolve around quality, while those in the West are around quantity. From personal experience, as the first staff person of the Council of Great Lakes Governors in the 1980s, I know this is true. The impetus for those eight US governors and two Canadian premiers to band together in solidarity was to oppose a number of proposals to build pipelines from the Great Lakes to the West. The governors’ ability to block such transfers was codified in the 1986 Water Resources Development Act, and further bolstered in later legislation.
If there are some regions that want to transfer water to the West, then California may need to make better decisions on how it uses it. Maher knows this, as he featured it on his show in June. Eighty percent of the water in California goes to agriculture. And while 11 gallons of water will produce a pound of strawberries, tomatoes, or oranges, it takes 1900 gallons to produce a pound of almonds. Almond production uses more water than all residents and businesses in Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. I like almonds, and they are healthy, but maybe it is not the right crop for an arid region suffering from chronic droughts.
If water pipelines are to be built, EISs can help decision makers by considering alternatives, and by giving voice to those most affected by such a project. Under best practices as defined by my organization, the International Association for Impact Assessment, EISs for Maher’s proposed water pipeline project would: