As part of its ongoing effort to “modernize and reinvigorate” the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the White House Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) this month issued guidelines for streamlining federal environmental reviews under NEPA. While the 15-page guidance document primarily provides an overview of the time-saving strategies and tools contained in various existing CEQ regulations (rather than announcing new CEQ policy), it does clarify that many of the CEQ regulations that specifically refer to Environmental Impact Statements (“EIS”s) can also be applied to the preparation of Environmental Assessments (“EA”s).
The new guidance specifically endorses the use of scoping for EAs and encourages the coordination of federal NEPA reviews with state, local, and tribal environmental review processes and with reviews under other federal laws (such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act). The guidance also recommends that agencies use their websites to facilitate public review and comment on draft EAs and EISs when those documents are being circulated for review.
Other suggested strategies and tools for improving efficiency and timeliness in NEPA reviews include the following:
- Make NEPA documents more concise: Reviews should not be “encyclopedias of all applicable information,” but should include only enough discussion to show why more study is not warranted on insignificant issues. Reviews should be written in plain language to avoid unnecessary confusion or risk of litigation from ambiguous or opaque analysis.
- Integrate reviews early in the planning process: For actions initiated by non-federal entities, federal agencies should guide applicants to gather and develop environmental information and analyses in advance of submitting applications. This may include soliciting an environmental report from the applicant to facilitate the lead agency’s review.
- Adopt existing EAs or EISs and incorporate material by reference: Subject to public review requirements, CEQ regulations provide for the adoption of one federal agency’s EIS or portion of that EIS by another federal agency preparing an EIS or EA. Agencies can also incorporate relevant analyses and information from existing documents.
- Set clear time lines for NEPA reviews: CEQ recommends that agencies establish clear time limits and designate a lead person to shepherd the NEPA review process.
Prior steps taken by CEQ to help modernize NEPA include publishing guidance on the use of Categorical Exclusions, guidance on mitigation and monitoring, and draft guidance on the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts in NEPA reviews. As previously discussed on this blog, the White House has selected the Tappan Zee Hudson River Crossing Project as one of fourteen priority infrastructure projects chosen for expedited environmental review and permitting under a CEQ pilot program.