White House Proposes Changes to Environmental Review Law

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Earlier this month, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) unveiled proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to modernize and clarify the regulations to facilitate more efficient, effective and timely NEPA reviews by federal agencies. With the proposed changes, CEQ aims to reduce paperwork and project delays.

NEPA was signed into law on January 1, 1970. It requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of proposed projects—from construction of roads, bridges, highways, transmission lines, conventional and renewable energy projects, broadband deployment and water infrastructure to management of activities on federal lands, such as grazing, forest management, wildfire protection and environmental restoration.

NLC believes that the implementation of NEPA supports our nation’s goals of protecting environmental quality.

The proposed rule would:

  • Establish time limits of two years for completion of environmental impact statements and one year for environmental assessments;
  • Establish a 300-page limit for environmental impact statements and a 75-page limit for environmental assessments;
  • For projects that require multi-agency reviews, establish a lead federal agency to develop a joint review schedule, procedures to elevate delays or disputes, and preparation of a single environmental impact statement and joint record of decision to the extent practicable;
  • Exclude non-federal projects from the NEPA review process (those with minimal federal funding or involvement);
  • Reduce duplication between federal, state and local governments by facilitating the use of documents required by other statutes or prepared by state or local agencies to comply with NEPA; and
  • Eliminate the requirement for analysis of “cumulative” effects from factors agencies must consider, while establishing that effects must be “reasonably foreseeable” and have a direct, causal relationship to the project.

NLC policy supports improving the NEPA process. Some of the proposed provisions will benefit local governments by reducing unnecessary project delays and decision time.

Specifically, NLC policy calls for concurrent reviews among all federal agencies; clearly defined procedures for resolving disputes among federal agencies; eliminating duplicative reviews by crediting equal or more stringent state environmental review actions; requiring all agencies to determine appropriate time frames to complete their reviews, and penalizing agencies that do not meet the deadlines; and ensuring adequate opportunity for public involvement.

NLC policy also calls on the federal government to reduce the vulnerability of federal programs to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather and to better align federal funding with local preparedness and resilience-building efforts. Federal agencies have previously used the “cumulative” effects provision to incorporate consideration of climate change into their reviews. Doing away with the requirement to consider climate impacts would be contrary to one of the main themes NLC has called for in an infrastructure package – making sound investments to building sustainable infrastructure.

Regulatory streamlining has been a theme of the Trump Administration. In 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13807 establishing a One Federal Decision policy, including a two-year goal for completing environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects, and directing CEQ to consider revisions to modernize its regulations.

Additionally, the President’s 2018 infrastructure proposal called for infrastructure permitting changes such as shortening the process for approving projects to two years or less.

CEQ has found that, on average, it takes federal agencies 4 and half years to complete environmental impact statements under NEPA, and for some projects it takes much longer. Additionally, these statements can also be lengthy and exceed, on average600 pages.

CEQ is accepting comments on the proposed rule through March 10 via the Federal Register, Docket ID No. CEQ-2019-0003. NLC is reviewing the proposal and will likely submit comments. Local officials are encouraged to submit comments and to share those with NLC by emailing berndt@nlc.org.

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About the Author: CCarolyn Berndt is the legislative director for sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.