On February 18, 2010, the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) released a long-anticipated draft guidance document addressing how the effects of climate change and greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions should be analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The CEQ guidance stresses that NEPA “demands informed, realistic governmental decision making.” Accordingly, the guidance instructs federal agencies to include a discussion of climate change within the scope of its NEPA analysis when an analysis of the direct and indirect of GHG emissions from proposed actions “may provide meaningful information to decision makers and the public.”
To put some meat on the bones of its overarching standard for “meaningful information”, the guidance deems projected direct annual CO2-equivalent GHG emissions from a proposed action of 25,000 metric tons or more “an indicator that a quantitative or qualitative assessment may be meaningful to decision makers and the public.”
However, the 25,000 metric ton figure is not a firm standard. The guidance makes clear that impacts from long-term projects with emissions below 25,000 metric tons annually may also warrant analysis. The Guidance goes on to list a number of technical documents that can assist agencies in quantifying GHG emissions for the purpose of a NEPA review. The Guidance also states expressly that the 25,000 ton standard should not be seen as an indicator of the significance of potential impacts of an action.
Apart from GHG emission, the Guidance also provides that, when appropriate, agencies should consider the potential effects of climate change on, or in combination with, a proposed action. According to the Guidance, climate change effects should be considered in the analysis of projects designed for long-term utility and located in climate-change vulnerable areas. It states that as such “the observed and projected effects of climate change that warrant consideration are most appropriately described as part of the current and future state of the proposed action’s ‘affected environment.’” The Guidance emphasizes that, in light of the uncertainties associated with climate change predictions, in considering the future effects of climate change, monitoring programs should be considered for inclusion in NEPA decision documents.
The draft Guidance specifically does not address what climate-change related impacts rise to the level of “significance” – thus requiring the preparation of an EIS. Rather, it seems to assume that agencies will analyze climate change within whatever NEPA document is otherwise being prepared for an action. However, CEQ has asked for comment on whether the final Guidance should address significance.
The Guidance attempts to strike a balance between requiring an assessment of GHG emissions and climate change impacts within the scope of NEPA review where it would be meaningful, while limiting the scope of such review so it does not run afoul of the “rule of reason,” the principle that agencies should focus on the usefulness of the potential information to the decision making process when determining the scope of its NEPA review. To that end, CEQ makes clear that agencies should use the NEPA scoping process “to set reasonable spatial and temporal boundaries” on any GHG assessment and, most importantly, “focus on aspects of climate change that may lead to changes in the impacts, sustainability, vulnerability and design of the proposed action and alternative courses of action.” It is clear that CEQ is not looking for wholly academic discussions of climate change in NEPA EAs and EISs, and also does not want a discourse on “wholly speculative effects.” Rather, the Guidance favors a discussion of GHG emissions and climate change in a manner where it could meaningfully impact the decision making process subject to the NEPA review, such as cases where the NEPA review could be used “to reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts, adapt to changes in our environment, and mitigate the impacts of Federal agency actions that are exacerbated by climate change.” In that vein, the Guidance emphasizes the importance of comparing the climate change-related effects of various project alternatives.
Thus, the emphasis of the Guidance is precisely where it should be – to provide information and analysis consistent with NEPA’s “rule of reason.” Of course, like most things NEPA, the devil is in the details. While this draft Guidance document, when finalized, will provide some useful broad overarching principles to determine the scope of any GHG/climate change analysis, as well as some specific tools to assist agencies in conducting that analysis, it will be left to the agencies – and ultimately the federal courts – to grapple with these issues in the context of the myriad federal actions with the potential to cause GHG/climate change impacts or that are potentially vulnerable to climate change impacts.
CEQ will receive public comment on the guidance documents for 90 days. The guidance documents and instructions for submitting comments are available here: www.whitehouse.gov/ceq/initiatives/nepa.