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CEQ Rescinds NEPA Guidance

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law more than 50 years ago, requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of proposed actions such as pipeline projects, highway projects, and drilling activities on public lands. The types of environmental impacts one must typically consider under NEPA are intentionally broad and can include evaluating social and economic effects in addition to environmental considerations. The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is responsible for managing NEPA and often issues guidance documents to assist stakeholders in interpreting NEPA requirements. 

Among other areas, CEQ provides guidance on how entities should assess and estimate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when proposing a project or program. Many projects and programs have the potential to emit or sequester greenhouse gases (GHGs), and federal courts have historically held that NEPA requires agencies to disclose and consider current and future climate impacts in their reviews of proposed projects and programs. However, the CEQ's 2019 ‘‘Draft National Environmental Policy Act Guidance on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions’’ (2019 GHG Guidance) shifted the NEPA landscape by reducing the consideration of long-term GHG emissions in the decision-making process. In February 2021, the CEQ rescinded the 2019 GHG Guidance and encouraged agencies to refer instead to its 2016 "Final Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Effects of Climate Change in National Environmental Policy Act Reviews’’ (2016 GHG Guidance) when assessing GHG emissions and potential climate change effects of proposed actions.

The 2016 GHG Guidance recommends that agencies quantify a proposed action’s direct and indirect GHG emissions, including potential carbon dioxide sequestration, to evaluate climate change effects. In cases where GHG emissions cannot be reliably quantified, the 2016 GHG Guidance recommends that agencies provide a qualitative analysis of GHG emissions along with a rationale for why a quantitative approach was not feasible. The 2016 GHG Guidance also advises agencies to consider alternatives to proposed actions that would make the actions and affected communities more resilient to impacts from climate change. All told, CEQ’s return to the 2016 GHG Guidance represents a redirection in expectations for GHG and climate change analysis under NEPA.

What’s next?

The Administration is currently reviewing the 2016 GHG Guidance and will revise its recommendations as necessary. CEQ may issue new draft guidance in the coming months. In the meantime, federal agencies will be expected to prepare more thorough analyses of climate change impacts for NEPA proceedings.

Questions?

Trihydro has NEPA experts on staff available to address questions or concerns you have regarding upcoming or current projects.

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Charlie DeWolf, PhD
Geochemist, Laramie, WY

Charlie is a PhD geochemist with over 27 years of experience in risk assessment and forensic evaluations using geochemical data. Charlie specializes in the integration of risk assessment and site-specific data and considerations to support cost effective remedial solutions for contaminated sites.
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