Today, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) finalized a targeted regulation that restores three basic elements of its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, including a reaffirmation that Federal agencies must evaluate all relevant environmental impacts – including those associated with climate change – during environmental reviews.
The specific changes made by today’s final “Phase 1” rule restore longstanding provisions that were modified for the first time in 2020; these 2020 changes caused implementation challenges for agencies and sowed confusion among stakeholders and the general public.
“Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict, and help ensure that projects get built right the first time,” said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory. “Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help projects get built faster, be more resilient, and provide greater benefits– to people who live nearby.”
The reforms being finalized today will provide communities and decision makers with more complete information about proposed projects, their environmental and public health impacts, and their alternatives. These three provisions were open for public comment in the Phase 1 notice of proposed rulemaking, published on October 7, 2021. In addition to the 45-day public comment period, CEQ also hosted two virtual public hearings and a Tribal consultation on the Phase 1 proposed rule. This rule will not delay any projects or reviews underway and will not add time to the NEPA process.
Today’s rulemaking is the first step in a two-phase approach that CEQ is taking to reform and modernize the regulations that guide the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act. Over the coming months, CEQ will be proposing a Phase 2 NEPA rulemaking that will provide further improvements to the efficiency and effectiveness of environmental review processes and reflect the Administration’s commitment to achieving environmental justice and confronting climate change.
The final rule makes the following three important changes to the 2020 NEPA regulations:
- Restores the requirement that federal agencies evaluate all the relevant environmental impacts of the decisions they are making. This proposed change ensures that agencies will consider the “direct,” “indirect,” and “cumulative” impacts of a proposed action, including by fully evaluating climate change impacts and assessing the consequences of releasing additional pollution in communities that are already overburdened by polluted air or dirty water. This has been the practice for decades and it ensures that decisions are not held up in court because of a failure to consider these impacts.
- Restores 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.
- Establishes CEQ’s NEPA regulations as a floor, rather than a ceiling, for the environmental review standards that federal agencies should be meeting. This proposal restores 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 continues to 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 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 final rule.