White House won’t use NEPA effectively on climate and clean energy — Part 1

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Council on Environmental Quality Bldg on Jackson Place in Washington DC (Photo: Wikipedia)

Council on Environmental Quality Bldg on Jackson Place in Washington DC (Photo: Wikipedia)

The White House won’t use the law on federal environmental impacts assessments as an effective tool for executive action on climate and clean energy projects. The Council on Environmental Quality has let four years go by without acting on proposed guidance to federal agencies on permitting of energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, rejecting appeals to take stronger action and leaving the playing field tilted in favor of the fossil fuel industry.

[See follow-up post: White House won’t use NEPA effectively on climate and clean energy — Part 2 (August 25)]

In 2008, the last year of the Bush administration, environmental groups petitioned the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to amend its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations to require that climate change be explicitly addressed in NEPA compliance documents. The groups also called on CEQ to issue guidance to federal agencies on how best to address climate change impacts in environmental assessments related to proposed federal projects and projects requiring federal permits.

(The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 establishes procedural requirements for all federal agencies to prepare environmental assessments and environmental impact statements analyzing the environmental implications of proposed major federal actions. NEPA is administered by the Council on Environmental Quality, part of the Executive Office of the President.)

CEQ did not respond to the petition for six years, long into the Obama administration, until it finally had to be sued for violation of a statutory requirement for a timely response. Now CEQ has responded by rejecting it, in an August 7 letter to the International Center for Technology Assessment, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club.

The letter from CEQ Acting Chair Michael Boots claims essentially that: (1) CEQ regulations already address the need to consider climate change impacts; (2) CEQ works with agencies through processes other than formal guidance on how to integrate consideration of climate impacts into planning and decision making; and (3) CEQ issued draft guidance to agencies in 2010 regarding consideration of climate impacts and greenhouse gas emissions, and is still considering how to proceed on that.

CEQ does deserve credit, especially for its support for federal planning on climate change preparedness and also for working with agencies on energy efficiency and alternative energy. But the agencies’ record on environmental impacts assessments of proposed federal actions projects suggests that, in running away from its 2010 draft guidance document and letting each agency go its own way, CEQ is ducking a significant opportunity, and responsibility.

Most federal agencies address climate change to some extent in the environmental impact statements they prepare in connection with decision making on projects. But how they do this varies widely. In some cases agencies have been evasive on matters that might involve standing up to corporate interests.  We see this especially in cases when, in considering permit applications — for new oil pipelines, for new coal leases on federal land, and in other cases — agencies have been allowed to consider individual projects without looking at how they fit into a larger context of climate policy and energy development. They have been allowed to conclude that a proposed project will have minimal climate implications, or make no new contribution to climate change, when a more rigorous analysis would have shown otherwise.

For example, U.S. permits for multiple proposed Canadian tar sands pipelines should be considered in light of an overall climate change strategy, rather than the current practice of considering each energy infrastructure proposal on a project-by-project basis. A piecemeal approach to tar sands infrastructure permitting, without analyzing their cumulative growth-inducing effect on tar sands development, fails to deal with the real climate impacts of allowing multiple pipelines.

For another example, in granting leases for huge amounts of coal mining on federal lands in the Powder River Basin, the Interior Department will say, in effect, if coal isn’t mined on this lease, it’ll come from somewhere else, so there is no net contribution of the project to climate change. The State Department did essentially the same thing with its environmental impact statement on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — if tar sands oil doesn’t move by this pipeline, it will move some other way, so an 830,000 barrels per day pipeline has no climate implications.

Apparently the Federal Aviation Administration, in preparing an environmental impact statement for a new airport, considers only emissions from aircraft, without looking at how expanding the number of airports facilitates an overall increase in air travel and thus a higher level of emissions with greater overall impacts.

In Part 2 of this post we’ll look at what CEQ originally proposed in its 2010 draft guidance on NEPA and climate change. We’ll consider how that guidance might have been used if it had been adopted, what it says about the Obama administration’s approach that it wasn’t, and what a really serious federal climate policy applied to fossil fuel projects might look like.

Earlier posts:

On climate change impact statements: What would be a showstopper?

Climate and energy infrastructure: On cumulative impacts of multiple tar sands pipelines

Federal coal mining permit blocked for failing to consider climate change impacts

What to do about the “Social Cost of Carbon” metric? — Part 1

What to do about the “Social Cost of Carbon” metric? — Part 2

Comments to the State Dept on the Keystone XL pipeline Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

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