CEQ NEPA Pilot Program
As part of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) broad efforts to modernize and reinvigorate Federal agency implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) through innovation, public engagement, and transparency, CEQ issued a solicitation to members of the public and Federal agencies on March 17, 2011, inviting them to nominate projects employing innovative approaches to completing environmental reviews more efficiently and effectively. CEQ selected five pilots to further NEPA goals and implement time- and cost-saving approaches in the Federal government:
- Assessing NEPA information technology tools to improve the efficiency and management of Federal environmental reviews;
- Supporting the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP) project to improve efficiency of Federal environmental reviews through the creation of best practice principles for Environmental Assessments;
- Improving efficiency of Federal environmental reviews through use of the Environmental Protection Agency’s NEPAssist;
- Identifying efficiencies to speed the Department of Transportation (DOT) environmental review process for rail service in the Northeast Corridor (Washington, DC, to Boston, MA); and
- Facilitating and assessing the Forest Service’s collaborative approaches to forest restoration and the development of NEPA best practices for forest restoration projects.
CEQ collaborated with the relevant agencies, tracked the progress of the NEPA Pilots, and monitored outcomes. On January 26, 2015, CEQ issued the National Environmental Policy Act Pilot Projects Report and Recommendations to evaluate outcomes, highlight lessons learned, and make recommendations for Federal agencies to consider as part of their NEPA implementation programs.
CEQ announced the selection of the first NEPA Pilot on August 31, 2011, an ongoing initiative using two information technology tools (IT) developed by two agencies to improve the efficiency and management of environmental reviews. The National Park Service’s Planning, Environment, and Public Comment System (PEPC) and the Forest Service’s eMNEPA were selected for their innovative value to enable online management of the environmental reviews and allow for the submission and processing of public comments on NEPA documents. These IT tools allow agency personnel from different offices to coordinate review timelines, distribute workloads, share documents, and collaborate through an internet-based platform. They also provide opportunities to make the public review, comment, and participation processes more robust and interactive.
On October 19, 2011, CEQ announced its second nomination, the Pilot Project on Best Practice Principles for Environmental Assessments (EAs). This ongoing pilot was conducted by the NAEP to assemble lessons learned and experience-based Best Practice Principles used in the preparation of EAs by Federal agencies, NEPA practitioners, and consulting firms. NAEP surveyed NEPA practitioners, and analyzed EAs prepared from 1979-2011 as well as projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The pilot developed BBPs that enhance opportunities for timely, cost-effective, and focused environmental assessments for the decisionmakers and the public.
CEQ announced the third NEPA Pilot program, the EPA’s NEPAssist, on October 19, 2011. EPA developed NEPAssist, a web-based Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping application, for use by Federal agencies to provide geographically-referenced data to inform environmental reviews and decision-making during all stages of the NEPA process. The pilot tracked the development of the public facing component and the growth of datasets available to practitioners, decisionmakers, and the public.
CEQ announced its fourth NEPA Pilot program on January 13, 2012, for a collaborative effort with the DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration to begin the process of preparing a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the improvement of intercity passenger rail service in the Northeast Corridor. This Pilot Project focused on early engagement of Federal, state and local governments and the public in the environmental review process to set benchmarks that maintain rigorous environmental protections and save time and costs by avoiding conflicts and delays found in similar complex multi-state transportation projects. CEQ worked with DOT and the Federal resource and regulatory agencies to develop and finalize a Statement of Principles in January 2013 that provided an alternative to developing a Memorandum of Understanding to memorialize the Federal participating agencies’ roles and responsibilities. Efficiencies identified for the high-speed rail project were compiled in a best practices memo.
On February 9, 2012, CEQ and the U.S. Forest Service announced the selection of a fifth NEPA Pilot. The final pilot, “Approaches to Restoration Management,” evaluates and compares the effectiveness of stakeholder engagement and the collaborative development of environmental reviews for two projects – the Fivemile-Bell Landscape Management Project and the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. This effort identified best practices for collaboration and both small and large scale restoration projects. This pilot demonstrated that early involvement of stakeholders can reduce costs and enhance efficiencies throughout the Federal government while maintaining strong environmental safeguards at the ground level.
CEQ evaluated the five NEPA Pilots’ outcomes and provided the following recommendations:
- Agencies should refine and develop their NEPA management and public engagement IT tools by leveraging existing tools and working collaboratively across the Federal Government to ensure the compatibility of IT tools.
- Agencies should have a suite of NEPA IT tools at their disposal and be able to choose which ones they need to meet their needs, depending on the project and step in the NEPA review process.
- Agencies should review the Best Practice Principles for developing Environmental Assessments and incorporate them into their NEPA practices.
- Agencies should provide comments to CEQ on which Best Practice Principles for Environmental Assessments should be incorporated into CEQ guidance.
- Agencies should encourage use of EPA’s NEPAssist geospatial IT tool by program and project managers as well as NEPA practitioners.
- Agencies should ensure their IT tools are compatible to ensure ease of use with NEPAssist.
- Agencies should consider developing and using a Statement of Principles in lieu of the more complex and time-intensive process required to adopt a formal Memorandum of Understanding when developing, cooperating with or participating in agency agreements with other Federal, tribal, state, or local governmental entities.
- Agencies should review the final best practices report for the Federal Railway Administration’s Northeast Corridor Future project when developing a large-scale (temporal and spatial) NEPA review.
- Agencies should review the final reports for the Forest Service’s Four Forest Restoration Initiative and Fivemile-Bell restoration projects and use the best practices when developing a large-scale (temporal and spatial) NEPA review.
- Agencies should optimize the use of collaborative stakeholder groups for developing and implementing monitoring for the effects of proposed projects and the effectiveness of proposed mitigations.
NOMINATION PROCESS: CEQ sought nominations of projects proposing improvements to any aspect of the NEPA process that can be replicated to increase efficiency across government, including:
- Simplifying NEPA implementation practices, such as data gathering, scoping, and public review and comment. NEPA applies to a wide variety of proposed actions, many of which are proposed by state and local agencies, corporations, tribes, organizations, and private individuals. CEQ is very interested in approaches that appropriately leverage and coordinate Federal, state, tribal, and local environmental review, consultation, and permitting requirements.
- Reducing the time and cost involved in preparing NEPA reviews by reducing paperwork and shortening timelines, applying NEPA early in the project development process, setting page limits, addressing incomplete or unavailable information, collaboratively developing purpose and need statements, determining the scope of the NEPA analysis, and preparing concise and focused EAs.
- Utilizing information technology to improve the efficiency of NEPA implementation for a particular project or when adopted program-wide.
- Improving the effectiveness of public engagement, such as by making NEPA documents and analyses easier to read and understand and enhancing public involvement to address environmental justice or other community concerns.
SELECTION PROCESS: CEQ consulted with agencies to confirm that any project nominated by a member of the public complied with existing laws and regulations, would improve the agency's NEPA implementation, and could be implemented with resources that were available. A panel of NEPA experts from federal agencies performed an initial screening of nominations to identify those with the greatest potential to:
(1) Reduce the costs and/or time needed to complete the NEPA process;
(2) Ensure environmental protection;
(3) Improve the quality and transparency of Federal agency decisionmaking; and
(4) Yield best practices or procedural innovations that can be replicated by other agencies or applied to other Federal actions or programs so as to improve NEPA implementation beyond a specific project.
CEQ consulted with the EPA and the Department of Justice to select the pilot projects. CEQ considered Administration priorities and strived for a diverse set of projects—in terms of geography, agency participation, and natural resource management issues—to the extent possible, given the range of qualified nominations submitted.
CONCLUSION: CEQ is using the NEPA Pilots to meet its obligations under section 6 of Executive Order 13563 to ensure the NEPA regulations are not interpreted or applied in a manner that is outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome. CEQ will coordinate with agencies on ways to more widely deploy the best practices identified through successful CEQ NEPA Pilot projects.