White House Publishes Guidance on GHGs in Permitting

On January 9, 2023, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published new interim guidance intended to assist federal agencies in analyzing greenhouse gas (GHG) and climate change effects of project proposals under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

NEPA requires federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of their proposed actions prior to making final decisions, such as on permit applications, rulemaking, and federal land management decisions. This interim guidance is the latest in a line of GHG guidance documents issued over the last decade, and while it (like its predecessors) may be repealed by a future administration, it is immediately available to guide federal agencies in preparing Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements.

Recognizing that “there is little time left to avoid a dangerous—potentially catastrophic—climate trajectory,” and that the Biden administration’s clean energy and climate agenda requires a substantial build-out of clean energy infrastructure subject to prolonged permitting review, the new guidance seeks to reduce the depth of analysis where a project involves net GHG emission reductions or no net GHG increase.

Accordingly, while federal agencies should quantify the reasonably foreseeable gross GHG emissions increases and gross GHG emission reductions for a proposed project, the no action alternative, and any reasonable alternatives over their projected lifetime, those agencies should be guided by a “rule of reason” and the “concept of proportionality” in undertaking this analysis.

In other words, projects with net beneficial climate effects warrant a less thorough climate impact review. For example, citing utility-scale solar and offshore wind, CEQ advises that “the relative minor and short-term GHG emissions associated with construction of certain renewable energy projects…should not warrant a detailed analysis of lifetime GHG emissions.” CEQ further advises that projects with only small GHG emissions “may be able to rely on less detailed emissions estimates.”

Comments on the new interim guidance are due March 10, 2023. For more information regarding the guidance, or for assistance drafting comments, please contact Lisa Gilbreath (207.791.1397) or Brian Rayback (207.791.1188).