White House releases draft NEPA guidance

Federal agencies will be required to consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change when carrying out National Environmental Policy Act reviews under draft guidance released today by the White House.

In related actions, the Council on Environmental Quality also released draft guidance specifying when there is a need to monitor environmental mitigation commitments made during the NEPA process and separate draft guidance clarifying the use of so-called categorical exclusions. The office also revamped its Web site to provide enhanced public tools for reporting on NEPA activities.

"Our country has been strengthened by the open, accountable, informed and citizen-involved decision-making structure created by NEPA," CEQ Chairwoman Nancy Sutley said in a statement. "We are committed to making NEPA workable and effective, and believe that these changes will contribute significantly to both goals."

The draft guidance on climate change says that if a proposed federal action would be reasonably anticipated to cause direct emissions of 25,000 metric tons or more of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, it would trigger a quantitative analysis. For long-term actions that have annual direct emissions of less than that amount, CEQ still encourages federal agencies to consider whether the action's long-term emissions should receive similar analysis.

CEQ will accept public comment on the guidance for 90 days.


The draft guidance does not apply to land and resource management actions and does not propose to regulate greenhouse gases, the agency noted. But CEQ is seeking public comment on the appropriate means of assessing climate change effects of land management activities so it can decide whether to recommend any particular protocols for assessing land management practices and their effect on carbon release and sequestration.

The guidance says that in an agency's analysis of direct effects of greenhouse gas emissions, it would be appropriate to quantify cumulative emissions over the life of the project; discuss measures to reduce emissions, including consideration of reasonable alternatives; and qualitatively discuss the link between such emissions and climate change. However, the guidance adds, it is not currently useful for the NEPA analysis to attempt to link specific climatological changes to the particular project or emissions, as such direct linkage is difficult to isolate and to understand.

Examples of proposals that may warrant a discussion of the greenhouse gas impacts of various alternatives, as well as possible measures to mitigate climate change impacts, include approval of a large solid waste landfill, approval of energy facilities such as a coal-fired power plant, or authorization of a methane-venting coal mine, the agency said.

And a proposal for long-term development of transportation infrastructure on a coastal barrier island would likely need to consider whether environmental effects or design parameters may be changed by the projected increase in the rate of sea level rise.

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.

CEQ also released draft guidance on NEPA mitigation and monitoring. NEPA compliance is often completed with a "finding of no significant impact," or FONSI, meaning a more detailed environmental impact statement is not required. The draft guidance clarifies that when the FONSI depends on successful mitigation, those requirements should be made public and be accompanied by monitoring and reporting.

The draft guidance also applies to monitoring and mitigation commitments made in an environmental impact statement or a record of decision. The document lays out three goals, saying that proposed mitigation should be considered throughout the NEPA process, that a monitoring program should be created or strengthened to ensure mitigation measures are implemented and effective, and that public participation and accountability should be supported through proactive disclosure of agency mitigation monitoring reports and documents.

CEQ will accept public comment on the draft for 90 days.

CEQ also released draft guidance on the use of a broad categories of activities under which agencies may apply a "categorical exclusion" from further NEPA review. The draft guidance addresses how agencies establish, apply and review categorical exclusions. It encourages agencies to engage the public in some way, most often through notification or disclosure, before using the categorical exclusion and to provide public information afterward about how they were used.

While CEQ previously has sought public comments on the topic, the draft guidance provides additional clarifications, so it will seek additional public comment for 45 days.

"It's very encouraging to see that after 40 years of success in protecting our environment, the Obama administration is adapting the law to help it better address the greatest environmental challenge of today -- climate change," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in a statement. "Given the impacts of global warming pollution, considering these emissions under NEPA is clearly the right thing to do."

"Before today's draft guidance on climate change is finalized, we urge the administration to further expand its scope to address global warming emissions and climate change impacts relating to America's public lands in addition to the already-covered federal projects," he added.

Click here to read the draft guidance on greenhouse gas emissions and NEPA.

Click here to read the draft guidance on mitigation and monitoring.

Click here to read the draft guidance on categorical exclusions.

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