Survey finds NEPA studies consider climate impacts inconsistently

Posted: Dec 19, 2011

Written by

LAWRENCE HURLEY, Greenwire
Climate change

Federal agencies are inconsistent in their analysis of how climate change would affect large projects, according to a new survey.

Columbia Law School's Center for Climate Change Law analyzed 196 environmental impact statements (EISs) that federal agencies have prepared for major projects as part of their obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Covering the period from January 2009 to November 2011, the data show that "the scope and methodology in these EISs varied widely," according to Michael Gerrard, the director of the center.

The featured projects include proposed power plants and renewable energy facilities, land management plans, military programs, mining operations and oil and gas developments.

While some agencies provide specific data on greenhouse emissions, others include only general information, Gerrard said. Likewise, some studies include "indirect impacts" on climate, such as purchased electricity, while others do not, he added.

Some agencies are also looking at the related question of how projects could be affected by climate change.

Gerrard highlighted the Army Corps of Engineers, Navy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in particular as agencies that "have begun taking a very close look at the impact of sea level rise on their activities."

The White House Council on Environmental Quality issued draft guidelines on how climate change should be addressed in EISs in February 2010 (Greenwire, Feb. 19, 2010).

CEQ is yet to finalize those guidelines. A spokesman declined to comment on the Columbia survey.

Gerrard and other environmental law experts say that the study of the varied approaches by the agencies could be used to find the best practices that could be utilized across the board.

"These findings highlight the need for national guidance on how EISs should consider climate change and they show that agencies can do a good job of this analysis when they so choose," Gerrard said.

Daniel Farber, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, welcomed the survey, noting that, in general, "NEPA implementation in the federal government suffers from fragmentation," making it difficult to track what different agencies are doing.

He said that states that have similar laws to NEPA, such as California, could benefit from a wider debate on how to tackle the issue.

"The next step should be to describe best practices and recommend improvements," Farber added.

There is a danger, however, of putting too much emphasis on NEPA, according to Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the Vermont Law School.

NEPA's main role is to "delay bad projects or rules to buy time for a political solution" and whatever findings an agency makes about climate change "are not enforceable," he said.

Furthermore, judges "are pretty easily satisfied with a soft glance rather than a hard look" when it comes to climate impacts, Parenteau added.



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