Posted by: Steven M. Taber | February 19, 2010

CEQ's Steps to Modernize and Reinvigorate NEPA Includes Reporting on Climate Change Effects of Federal Actions

The Council on Environmental Quality, on February 18, 2010, proposed three substantive steps to “modernize and reinvigorate” the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). According to Nancy Sutley, the Chair of the White House-based CEQ, these measures “will assist Federal agencies to meet the goals of NEPA, enhance the quality of public involvement in governmental decisions relating to the environment, increase transparency and ease implementation.”

These three steps include when and how Federal agencies must consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in their proposed actions; clarifying appropriateness of “Findings of No Significant Impact” and specifying when there is a need to monitor environmental mitigation commitments; and clarifying use of categorical exclusions. The CEQ is requesting public comment on all three of the draft guidances.

The Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Must be Considered in the NEPA Process

Perhaps the most critical element to this modernization of the NEPA process is the CEQ’s draft guidance on when and how Federal agencies must consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in their proposed actions. According to the CEQ:

The draft guidance explains how Federal agencies should analyze the environmental impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change when they describe the environmental impacts of a proposed action under NEPA.  It provides practical tools for agency reporting, including a presumptive threshold of 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from the proposed action to trigger a quantitative analysis, and instructs agencies how to assess the effects of climate change on the proposed action and their design.  The draft guidance does not apply to land and resource management actions and does not propose to regulate greenhouse gases.

While some courts have already held that climate change and greenhouse gas emissions must be considered in the NEPA process. See, “Greenhouse Gases Should Be Considered in All EISs and EAs;” see also, Center for Biological Diversity v. NHTSA, 508 F.3d 522 (9th Cir. 2008), Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Mosbacher, 488 F.Supp.2d 889 (N.D. Cal. 2007); Border Power Plant Working Group v. Department of Energy, 260 F.Supp.2d 997 (S.D. Cal. 2003); and Mid-States Coalition for Progress v. Surface Transportation Board, 345 F.3d 520 (8th Cir. 2003). To these courts, these findings indicate that emission of greenhouse gases substantially contribute to climate change, and climate change is expected to result in widespread adverse environmental effects. Therefore, it should be mentioned in the EIS.

What the draft guidance does explain, however, that is not present in the case law are the “practical tools for agency reporting.” That is, it sets a de minimis level of 25,000 metric tons of CO2e before the proposed action would trigger quantitative analysis, which may eliminate many federal projects from the guidance.

The public comment period for this draft Guidance is 90 days. Comments may be submitted electronically from the CEQ’s website: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/initiatives/nepa/submit?topic=Consideration%20of%20Greenhouse%20Gases. In addition, at the end of the draft Guidance, the CEQ asks several questions that it would like to have addressed by the public:

1. How should NEPA documents regarding long-range energy and resource management programs assess GHG emissions and climate change impacts?

2. What should be included in specific NEPA guidance for projects applicable to the federal land management agencies?

3. What should be included in specific NEPA guidance for land management planning applicable to the federal land management agencies?

4. Should CEQ recommend any particular protocols for assessing land management practices and their effect on carbon release and sequestration?

5. How should uncertainties associated with climate change projections and species and ecosystem responses be addressed in protocols for assessing land management practices?

6. How should NEPA analyses be tailored to address the beneficial effects on GHG emissions of Federal land and resource management actions?

7. Should CEQ provide guidance to agencies on determining whether GHG emissions are “significant” for NEPA purposes. At what level should GHG emissions be considered to have significant cumulative effects. In this context, commenters may wish to consider the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497, 524 (2007).

Draft Guidance on the Appropriateness of “Findings of No Significant Impact” Tightens Monitoring and Reporting Restrictions

When Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) is issued for a Federal action, the need for a detailed Environmental Impact Statement is obviated. Many Federal agencies attempt to mitigate the environmental impact of their actions as part of the NEPA process so that they can reach a FONSI and not be required to draft an EIS. However, in many cases, the follow-up on mitigation activities promised is lacking. Thus, the draft guidance seeks to clarify that although the environmental impacts of a proposed action may be mitigated to the point when the agency make a FONSI determination, the agency must make the mitigation requirements public and perform the necessary monitoring and reporting.

Revised Draft Guidance Clarifying Use of Categorical Exclusions

Many Federal actions do not have significant effects on the environment.  When these actions fall into broad categories of activities, agencies may apply a “categorical exclusion” from further NEPA review.  The CEQ originally released a draft guidance to clarify and promote the use of categorical exclusions on September 17, 2006. 71 Fed.Reg. 54816 (Sept. 17, 2006). This action would revise that draft guidance and clarify the rules for categorical exclusions and ensures that there is a concise public record when agencies apply them.  While CEQ previously has sought public comments on this matter, this guidance provides additional clarifications, so it will seek additional public comment for 45 days.

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