On Thursday, January 9th, 2020, the White House announced proposed fundamental changes to the National Environmental Policy Act. These changes would be sweeping, placing limits on almost every aspect of the 50-year-old law which has had only minor updates since 1978.
A little background
On January 1, 1970, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law. NEPA was the first major environmental law in the U.S. and requires Federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed major Federal actions prior to making decisions. The law also requires that information about their decision making be disseminated to the public, allowing the public to weigh-in on issues that may affect their communities. Essentially, NEPA was designed to make government decisions more transparent, and to ensure that the potential physical, biological, economic, and social effects on the quality of the human environment are appropriately considered.
What’s changing with the new NEPA rule?
A full description of the changes can be found on the Federal Register, but changes are proposed on most aspects of the NEPA review process. Some of the key proposed changes include:
- Limiting the scope of the NEPA review by redefining what constitutes a major federal action and excluding non-federal projects with minimal federal funding from the NEPA review process.
- Eliminating cumulative impact analyses that require the analysis of the incremental impacts of past, present and reasonably foreseeable future actions (collectively known as cumulative impacts). Depending on the project type, cumulative impact analyses have been used to help determine the project’s contribution to climate change.
- Establishing time and page limits for the completion of Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). At present, an EIS can take an average of 4-1/2 years to complete, which allows for a thorough characterization of impacts and data collection to address potential knowledge gaps. This time period also provides an opportunity for the public to comment on issues that may affect them. Proposed changes include a two-year limit for an EIS, and a one-year limit for an Environmental Assessment (EA).
The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) will collect public comments until March 20, 2020, before making the rule final. Comments can be read/entered online with Docket reference number: CEQ-2019-0003.
Trihydro is actively involved in the NEPA process for our clients and routinely authors NEPA documents including EAs and EISs, as well as guides clients through the NEPA review process. We are closely following these changes to NEPA requirements and can answer questions you may have about subsequent impacts to your projects.
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Jana White, PhD