The White House Council on Environmental Quality has found "no basis" for excluding greenhouse gas emissions from National Environmental Policy Act reviews.
Responding to inquiries from Republican lawmakers, CEQ Chairwoman Nancy Sutley said NEPA "cannot be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions" and that the Obama administration remains committed to energy and climate legislation to address those broader issues.
"Nonetheless, NEPA compels Federal agencies to consider environmental effects before undertaking significant actions or policies," Sutley wrote in a letter to the lawmakers late last month. "CEQ sees no basis for excluding greenhouse gas emissions from that consideration."
Sutley noted that her office is considering issuing draft guidance for agencies in response to a petition filed in 2008 by three groups calling for CEQ to amend NEPA regulations to address climate change. The petition was filed by the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and International Center for Technology Assessment.
"CEQ believes that it is appropriate and necessary to consider the impact of significant Federal actions on greenhouse gas emissions and the potential for climate change to affect Federal activities evaluated through NEPA and different approaches for managing those effects," Sutley wrote. "Accordingly, CEQ is considering responding to the petition you reference by issuing guidance to agencies on this issue."
Any such guidance would be first proposed in draft form and available for public comment, she wrote. Because the agency is still developing the guidance and a formal review process has not yet commenced, there is no specific time line at this point, she added.
Sutley's letter was in response to Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), two of the Senate's most prominent global warming skeptics, who in October demanded information about the ongoing deliberations on whether to amend regulations to require climate change to be one of the elements considered in an environmental impact statement (Greenwire, Oct. 23, 2009).
"Requiring analysis of climate change impacts during the NEPA process, especially at the project-specific level, will slow our economic recovery while providing no meaningful environmental benefits," the senators wrote.
The senators asked for a wide range of documents and communications about the issue, including e-mails, memos and call logs among CEQ staff and a list of all groups, consultants or others CEQ staff met with on the issue. But Sutley declined the request.
"It has been the longstanding practice of the Executive Branch to protect the confidentiality of agency deliberations -- particularly those concerning pending matters -- to ensure the frank exchange of advice and views, which is essential to effective policymaking," Sutley wrote.
Once CEQ issues a draft guidance document, the public will have an opportunity to study and debate it, she added, offering to meet with the senators or their staff.
Sutley also disagreed with an assertion by the senators that projects across the nation are being delayed due to "inappropriate and inefficient implementation and litigation from existing environmental regulations." The senators cited a National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission estimate that the median time to complete environmental impact statements for highway projects in recent years has been as high as 80 months.
"I fully agree that the NEPA process should not result in unjustified delay, but believe strongly that adequate environmental reviews and public participation can be accomplished in a timely matter," Sutley wrote.
She added that recent experience with environmental reviews for the projects funded by the economic stimulus package, including those for the Transportation Department, shows the "successful wide-scale application of NEPA without slowing economic recovery."
Sutley also noted that many federal agencies have already considered the effects on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change when analyzing proposed federal projects and included a list of environmental impact statements that address those issues.
Click here to read Sutley's letter.