A top Obama administration official yesterday defended a new draft proposal that will require federal agencies to consider climate change during environmental analyses of proposed projects as "straightforward, common-sense guidance."
Under the draft guidance released yesterday by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, agencies will have to consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change effects when carrying out National Environmental Policy Act reviews. CEQ will take public comment for 90 days on the proposal.
"I think there was really no question that there are environmental effects associated with climate change, and how could we not have that as part of agencies' thinking as they look at their NEPA obligations and looking at environmental impacts?" Sutley told E&E. "I think what we've tried to craft is some very straightforward, common-sense guidance."
Agencies will need to look at emissions that may be produced by projects such as a landfill or coal-fired power plant. They also must consider climate change effects on projects -- for example, whether plans for infrastructure along the coast would need to change due to projected sea level rise.
Sutley noted the draft guidance's threshold of 25,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually for a proposed action to trigger a quantitative analysis, saying CEQ tried to "really focus on projects where there's likely to be effects associated with greenhouse gas emissions."
The guidance also fulfills CEQ's "long-standing role of providing guidance to agencies so they're not all trying to figure this out themselves; they have some basis to start to, and in some cases continue to, do the analysis."
CEQ has been asked for guidance informally by federal agencies and formally in 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.
Criticism from both sides
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, commended the administration for "addressing the interplay between NEPA and greenhouse gas emissions," but criticized the specifics.
"Using NEPA as a backdoor tool to regulate greenhouse gases will stifle job creation and create greater uncertainty for the economy," Inhofe said in a statement. "The Administration's proposed NEPA guidance for GHGs appears to do exactly that: it will enable federal agencies to block or delay production of America's domestic energy resources, which are the largest in the world."
Sutley insisted that the draft guidance is neither a way to regulate greenhouse gases nor a substitute for comprehensive climate and energy legislation.
She also said she does not expect the draft guidance to slow down the NEPA process, saying that agencies over the years have incorporated other environmental issues that weren't at the forefront when NEPA regulations were established decades ago. "Agencies have found ways [with] CEQ helping them to find ways to analyze that, so we don't expect this is going to be that new."
The draft guidance generally won strong praise from the environmental community. But some criticized it for not applying to land- and resource-management actions, such as oil and gas drilling on public lands.
Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, said his initial look at the draft guidance was "very positive." But he added, "There are some self-avowed holes in it. It does not address how land management is to be analyzed, and that's an extremely important point."
Likewise, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope praised the draft guidance as "clearly the right thing to do" but encouraged the administration to expand its scope and include public lands.
Sutley noted that CEQ is seeking public comment on the issue so it can decide whether to recommend any particular protocols for assessing land management practices.
"We're asking for comment, we're asking for ideas," she said. "It's something that we're interested in discussing with the land management agencies but hearing also from the public about how we could and should address land management. ... I think it's an area where we need to learn more, and that's the purpose of asking for comment."