Administration releases changes to NEPA policy

By Laura Bies

The Council on Environmental Quality proposed updates to its regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act. ©BLM Oregon and Washington

The White House released proposed changes to the regulations to implementing the National Environmental Policy Act, which would limit the situations that require environmental analysis under NEPA and attempt to make the process faster and less onerous.

The changes were proposed by the Council for Environmental Quality, which oversees NEPA implementation.

NEPA establishes a procedural framework requiring all federal agencies to consider environmental impacts prior to taking any “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.”

Under NEPA, agencies must consider the environmental effects of and alternatives to major projects, such as highways, pipelines and energy development projects. The law also provides a process for public input on such actions. NEPA was passed in 1969; its implementing regulations have not been updated in decades.

Every year, federal agencies prepare thousands of environmental assessments and

hundreds of environmental impact statements. Natural resource management agencies must often perform a NEPA analysis, for management plans or for changes in the activities allowed in protected areas, for example. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regularly provides information for use in NEPA documents and reviews, and provides comments on these documents.

Currently, the threshold for NEPA analysis is a “major federal action,” which includes actions by non-governmental agencies, organizations and companies that receive federal funding. The proposal would exclude from NEPA analysis all projects in which the federal funding or participation is minimal. The CEQ is requesting comments on if and how “minimal” should be defined in the regulations.

The proposal would also establish a two-year time limit for preparing an environmental impact statement and a one-year limit on an environmental assessment. Current regulations do not set a time limit on preparation of these document, which can take several years. In addition, the rule would put in place a page limit on these documents. The current CEQ regulations recommend a 150-page limit for an environmental impact statement (or 300 pages for a proposal that is of unusual scope or complexity); the proposal would codify these limitations.

The updated regulations would also no longer require agencies to consider cumulative or indirect impacts. The changes eliminate the definition of cumulative impacts and remove the

terms “direct” and “indirect” in an attempt to “focus agency time and resources on considering whether an effect is caused by the proposed action rather than on categorizing the type of effect.” The goal is to “focus agencies on consideration of effects that are reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action.”

The CEQ is accepting public comments on the proposal until March 10.

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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