Guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality

Late last month, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released two important guidance documents related to the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). One was revised draft guidance regarding the consideration of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change in NEPA reviews (Draft Climate Change Guidance), which supersedes the draft guidance on this topic that the CEQ issued in 2010.

The CEQ is accepting public comments on the Draft Climate Change Guidance until Feb. 23. The other was Final Guidance on Effective Use of Programmatic NEPA Reviews (Programmatic NEPA Guidance), which was originally issued in draft form in August 2014. Both of these guidance documents are part of the Administration’s effort to modernize federal agency implementation of NEPA to improve the transparency, involvement of the public, and efficiency of environmental reviews.

Draft Climate Change Guidance. The Draft Climate Change Guidance provides direction to agencies on how NEPA analyses should consider both the impacts of proposed agency actions on climate change and the effects of climate change on the environmental consequences of proposed agency actions. This draft guidance is relevant to all NEPA analyses, not just those associated with projects with the potential to emit GHGs. The key elements of the Draft Climate Change Guidance include:

Considering the Effects of GHG Emissions and Climate Change

  • CEQ recommends that agencies use projected GHG emissions and potential changes in carbon sequestration and storage (e.g., changes in vegetation) as the proxy for assessing a proposed action’s potential climate change impacts, in light of the difficulty of attributing specific climate impacts to individual projects.   
  • The draft guidance criticizes the current practice of many agencies of concluding that a proposed action’s GHG emissions are not significant or do not merit detailed consideration because the emissions from the proposed action will have small, if any, potential climate change effects. The fact that emissions from a government action or approval represent only a small fraction of global emissions reflects the nature of the climate change challenge, and is not an appropriate basis for deciding whether to consider climate impacts under NEPA.  
  • CEQ recognizes the concept of proportionality in addressing GHG emissions; i.e., agencies should be guided by the principle that the extent of the analysis should be commensurate with the quantity of projected GHG emissions. If an agency concludes an evaluation of the effects of GHG emissions from a proposed federal action would not be useful in the decision-making process and comparison of alternatives, it should document the rationale for its decision.  
  • NEPA’s traditional consideration of context and intensity when assessing “significance” also applies to weighing the significance of climate change impacts.   
  • Consideration of a proposed action’s direct and indirect climate change impacts should include emissions from activities that have a reasonably close causal relationship to the federal action, including those that are the predicate to the agency action (upstream actions) and those that are the consequence of the agency action (downstream actions).  
  • While the NEPA analysis must consider the cumulative impacts on climate change, CEQ does not expect that an EIS would be required based on cumulative impacts of GHG emissions alone.  
  • An agency’s consideration of GHG emissions is not limited to fossil fuel sources. The analysis must also take into account biogenic sources of carbon emissions from land-management activities (such as prescribed burning, timber-stand improvements, fuel-load reductions, scheduled harvesting, and grazing), carbon sequestration potential, and the net change in carbon stocks that are relevant in light of the proposed actions and time-frames under consideration.  
  • CEQ encourages agencies to incorporate by reference larger-scale analyses of climate impacts from GHG emissions that have already been prepared to support policy or programmatic decisions, as well as applicable agency emissions targets such as federal, state, tribal, or local goals for GHG emission reductions to provide a frame of reference.  
  • An agency’s analysis of climate change impacts may be qualitative or quantitative; the type of analysis to use should be informed by the tools and information available. The Draft Climate Change Guidance establishes a reference point of 25,000 metric tons of CO2-e emissions on an annual basis, below which a quantitative GHG emissions analysis is not warranted, unless quantification below that reference point is easily accomplished.

Considering the Effects of Climate Change on the Environmental Consequences of a Proposed Action

  • The analysis of impacts on the affected environment should focus on those aspects of the human environment that are impacted by both the proposed action and climate change. As examples, the Draft Climate Change Guidance notes that a proposed action may require water from a stream that has diminishing quantities of available water because of decreased snowpack in the mountains, or add heat to a water body that is exposed to increasing atmospheric temperatures.  
  • CEQ explains that the expected lifespan of the proposed project defines the temporal bounds for the future state of the environment, and cautions that agencies should remain aware of the evolving body of scientific information and its clarification of climate impacts at a more localized level.  
  • Climate change effects should be considered in the analysis of projects that are located in areas that are considered vulnerable to specific effects of climate change, such as increasing sea level or other ecological change, within the project’s anticipated useful life.