Today, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced important steps to restore community safeguards during environmental reviews for a wide range of Federal projects and decisions.
As part of the Biden Administration’s whole-of-government approach to tackling the climate crisis and confronting environmental injustice, CEQ is proposing to restore three core procedural provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations to provide communities and decision makers with more complete information about proposed projects, their environmental and public health impacts, and their alternatives.
The changes put forward in this “Phase 1” proposed rule would generally restore three key regulatory provisions that were in effect for decades before being modified for the first time in 2020. The 2020 changes caused implementation challenges for agencies, and sowed confusion among stakeholders and the general public. These reforms would restore durability and regulatory certainty, cut down on conflict, deliver sounder results on the ground, and aim to get more American workers on the job building our next generation of infrastructure.
“The basic community safeguards we are proposing to restore would help ensure that American infrastructure gets built right the first time, and delivers real benefits – not harms – to people who live nearby,” said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory. “Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help reduce conflict and litigation and help clear up some of the uncertainty that the previous administration’s rule caused.”
The proposed rule would make the following three important changes to the 2020 NEPA rules:
- Restore the requirement that federal agencies evaluate all the relevant environmental impacts of the decisions they are making. This proposed change would make clear that agencies must consider the “direct,” “indirect,” and “cumulative” impacts of a proposed decision, including by evaluating a full range of climate change impacts and assessing the consequences of releasing additional pollution in communities that are already overburdened by polluted air or dirty water.
- Restore the full authority of agencies to work with communities to develop and analyze alternative approaches that could minimize environmental and public health costs. This proposed change would give agencies the flexibility to determine the “purpose and need” of a proposed project based on a variety of factors, and to work with project proponents and communities to mitigate or avoid environmental harms by analyzing common sense alternatives. The 2020 NEPA rule limited federal agencies’ ability to develop and consider alternative designs or approaches that do not fully align with the stated goals of the project’s sponsor, often a private company.
- Establish CEQ’s NEPA regulations as a floor, rather than a ceiling, for the environmental review standards that federal agencies should be meeting. This proposal would restore the ability of Federal agencies to tailor their NEPA procedures, consistent with the CEQ NEPA regulations, to help meet the specific needs of their agencies, the public, and stakeholders.
CEQ is inviting public comment on these proposed revisions. Two public meetings on the proposed rule will be held online on October 19, 2021 from 1:00-4:00 pm EDT and October 21 from 5:00-8:00 pm EDT. To learn more or register, please visit http://nepa.gov.
Over the coming months, CEQ will also work toward proposing a set of broader “Phase 2” changes to the NEPA regulations to help ensure full and fair public involvement in the environmental review process; meet the nation’s environmental, climate change, and environmental justice challenges; provide regulatory certainty to stakeholders; and promote better decision-making consistent with NEPA’s goals and requirements.
Enacted by Congress in 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a cornerstone of our Nation’s efforts to protect the environment and engage the public in government decision making. NEPA was enacted to improve Federal decision making by ensuring high quality information about the environmental effects of proposed actions and their reasonable alternatives are made available to decision makers and the public before an action is taken.
As the agency responsible for implementing NEPA, CEQ works to ensure that environmental reviews for Federal actions and infrastructure projects are thorough, efficient, and reflect the input of the public and local communities.
CEQ’s NEPA regulations apply to a wide range of Federal agency actions, from permits and authorizations for major infrastructure projects like bridges, transit, and renewable energy installations, to Federal land use plans and restoration activities. CEQ first issued NEPA regulations in 1978 (“1978 regulations”).
The fundamental principles of informed and science-based decision making, transparency, and public engagement are reflected in NEPA. CEQ seeks to advance these core principles in this proposed rule.