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The Value of the National Environmental Policy Act

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a landmark environmental law with a 45 year history of driving better quality projects and better outcomes for communities. Here are a few facts to keep in mind about NEPA.

Imagine if the Federal government decided to build a six-lane highway straight through your neighborhood, and you had no voice in that decision.  Fortunately, we no longer have to confront this scenario – thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act. Today, we take for granted that the public has a right to participate in the Federal decision-making process, but in fact it was NEPA that first established this right.  And NEPA has a remarkable 45 year history of driving better quality projects and better outcomes for communities. 

Here are a few facts to keep in mind about this landmark environmental law – which was passed with strong bipartisan support to protect people of all backgrounds across the country, and has been emulated around the world. 

NEPA leads to better economic and environmental outcomes for communities.  There are countless examples of environmental reviews uncovering better project alternatives. Here’s just one example of how this works: At the site of an important Brownfield redevelopment project in South Providence, Rhode Island, the NEPA process for the Providence Community Health Center helped to reveal the existence of potential residual contaminants from lithography chemicals and underground tanks at the historic site.  Thanks to NEPA, the Department of Health and Human Services was able to take the necessary steps to move forward with the funding of the redevelopment project in a way that protected human health and minimized the potential for future liability.

More than 90 percent of environmental reviews are completed in a matter of days or weeks.  Agencies conduct hundreds of thousands of environmental reviews each year, and the overwhelming number of these use categorical exclusions, the least intensive form of NEPA review.  By reducing paperwork and costs, categorical exclusions prevent delays for projects or actions that Federal agencies have previously determined to have no significant effects on the environment. 

NEPA doesn’t dictate decisions. NEPA requires that decision makers are thoughtful and transparent about considering the environmental impact of projects.  But NEPA doesn’t require agencies to choose the project with the best environmental outcome – in fact it doesn’t dictate any part of their decision about whether to pursue a project. Agencies select projects for a host of different reasons – but NEPA makes sure Americans are aware of the consequences and have a voice in the process.

That’s not to say there isn’t always room for improvement.  Under this Administration, the Council on Environmental Quality has led an historic effort to modernize how agencies implement NEPA to improve transparency, public involvement, and efficiency.  This includes using technology to increase efficiency and public participation; conducting pilot projects to reduce time and cost involved in preparing NEPA reviews; releasing guidance for agencies that outlines efficiencies that can and should be used for all types of NEPA reviews; and issuing guidance on how agencies can comply with NEPA during emergency situations that demand immediate action.  These efforts support the President’s directive requiring agencies to modernize review and permitting of infrastructure with the goal of reducing the aggregate timelines for major infrastructure projects by half.

In the latest step under this modernization initiative, in December we released updated draft guidance for agencies on how to consider greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change in their NEPA analyses.  Considering climate change and its impacts on Federal decisions falls squarely within the scope this bedrock environmental law. Many agencies are doing this already, and Federal courts have said they should.  What is missing is consistency in their approach. The guidance will provide agencies with a reasoned approach to addressing a clear environmental impact – climate change – in their environmental reviews.

We are proud of our efforts to make sure that NEPA continues to serve Americans.  We keep working with the public, communities, state and local governments, businesses and all stakeholders to ensure they have a seat at the table in the Federal decision-making process – just as NEPA intended.  

Taryn Tuss is Communications Director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality