NEPA Overhaul? CEQ Proposes Significant Changes to Federal Environmental Review

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a division of the Executive Office of the President, today published in the Federal Register a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would make significant changes to its regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

CEQ’s efforts spring from a 2017 Executive Order that directed it to “enhance and modernize the Federal environmental review and authorization process” by, among other initiatives, ensuring “that agencies apply NEPA in a manner that reduces unnecessary burdens and delays as much as possible, including by using CEQ’s authority to interpret NEPA to simplify and accelerate the NEPA review process.”  Today’s publication, the first comprehensive update of the CEQ NEPA regulations since their promulgation in 1978, proposes noteworthy reductions in the scope of and timeline for federal environmental review.

Key proposed changes include:

  • Limiting the scope of the NEPA review.  CEQ proposes to exclude from NEPA review non-federal projects with minimal federal funding or minimal federal involvement such that the agency cannot control the outcome on the project, reasoning that “[i]n such circumstances, there is no practical reason for an agency to conduct a NEPA analysis because the agency could not influence the outcome of its action to address the effects of the project.”  The impact of this change on privately-funded (i.e., non-federal) projects is unclear, however, because major federal actions subject to NEPA review under the proposed rule include “actions approved by permit or other regulatory decision as well as Federal and federally assisted activities.”
  • Eliminating cumulative impact analyses.  CEQ proposes to change how to address cumulative impacts, such that analysis of cumulative effects is not required under NEPA, finding that “categorizing and determining the geographic and temporal scope of such effects has been difficult and can divert agencies from focusing their time and resources on the most significant effects,” and “can lead to encyclopedic documents that include information that is irrelevant or inconsequential to the decision-making process.”
  • Requesting comments on GHGs.  The effect that elimination of cumulative impact analyses will have on NEPA review of the greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts of a proposed project is unclear.  Just last summer, in its proposed draft guidance on how NEPA analyses should address GHG emissions, “Draft National Environmental Policy Act Guidance on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” CEQ stated that “the potential effects of GHG emissions are inherently a global cumulative effect.” CEQ has invited comment on this issue, noting that if it finalizes its proposed rulemaking, it would review the draft GHG guidance for potential revisions consistent with the regulations.
  • Establishing time limits of two years for completion of Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) and one year for completion of Environmental Assessments.  Currently, the average time for federal agencies to complete an EIS is four and a half years.  A two-year presumptive time limit, measured from the date of the issuance of the notice of intent to the date a record of decision is signed, would bring the majority of EISs within the timeline achieved by only a quarter of EISs prepared over the last decade, according to the CEQ’s report on EIS Timelines.

Because the rulemaking proposes sweeping changes to NEPA, these changes likely will be challenged in court.  Nevertheless, the changes are indicative of a federal push to reduce the scope and time of environmental review, particularly related to highway and energy infrastructure projects.  In an op-ed piece, CEQ Chairwoman Mary B. Neumayr stated that the proposed changes “would modernize, simplify, and accelerate the NEPA process in order to promote public involvement, increase transparency, and enhance the participation of states, tribes, and localities. These changes would also reduce unnecessary burdens and delays and would make important clarifications to improve the decision-making process.”

Public comments are due March 10, 2020.  CEQ will host two public hearings on the proposed rule: in Denver, CO, on February 11, 2020 and in Washington, DC, on February 25, 2020.

If you have any questions on the proposed rule or would like assistance in drafting comments, please contact Pierce Atwood energy and environmental attorneys Lisa Gilbreath or Randy Rich.