The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a division of the White House which oversees federal agency implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), recently proposed significant changes in the implementation of NEPA. Intended to establish national policy for the consideration of the environment in the federal decision-making process, each agency’s regulations for NEPA compliance guide the agencies as they perform environmental analyses.

The CEQ’s proposed changes are intended to speed up and streamline the approval process for projects. Some of the key proposed revisions include:

  • Setting time and page limits on Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) and Environmental Assessments (EA): The proposal recommends two years for an EIS, with a limit of 150 pages (or up to 300 pages for proposals of “unusual scope or complexity”), and one year for an EA, approximately half the time currently required for completion. These changes are being considered to assist in preparing focused and concise reports and facilitating more timely reviews and responses.

  • Curtailing cumulative impact analyses: This proposed change is being considered to reduce the complexity of the environmental review process, helping to reduce document size and approval schedules.

  • Restricting the scope of NEPA reviews: This would exclude projects that have negligible federal involvement or impacts minimum federal funding. This change is intended to reduce the overall quantity of NEPA reviews, leading to better use of often-limited staff resources and shortening overall review and approval schedules.

NEPA was passed to incorporate consideration of project alternatives — and the environmental impacts of those alternatives — in the decision-making process, provide for coordination between agencies on environmental issues, and provide for public participation in the environmental review and decision-making process in order to safeguard the environment for present and future generations. But over the decades the NEPA review process has become increasingly complex.

Today, thousands of projects are effectively trapped in analysis paralysis. The CEQ proposal aims to streamline the process. While these changes are intended to reduce delays and paperwork, the practical implications for their timing and process for implementation on a wide variety of projects by numerous federal agencies are still unclear. As more information and clarity on the implications of the implementation of these regulations becomes available, Burns & McDonnell will keep its clients informed and updated.

The full text of CEQ’s proposed changes to NEPA is available online. The CEQ is accepting public comments on its proposed rule changes and has conducted several workshops. The public comment period is still open, and the CEQ has asked for all comments to be submitted by March 10, 2020.

 

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Steve Thornhill is a siting and environmental studies project manager at Burns & McDonnell. He specializes in preparing Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments.