Draft guidance to federal agencies on environmental impact assessment of proposed federal actions such as energy development permits, which the White House has allowed to languish for four years, could move the system toward analyzing specific proposed projects within a larger context of cumulative global warming impacts. The 2010 draft guidance on implementing the National Environmental Policy Act also called for a comparison of the emissions associated with proposed projects with the emissions associated with potential alternatives, such as renewable energy development, and with the alternative of no project development at all. Think of how such a big-picture approach to federal decisions could be applied vis-a-vis the relentless pressure today to step up U.S. permitting of new fossil fuel projects.
In White House won’t use NEPA effectively on climate and clean energy — Part 1 (August 22), we noted that the White House has, in effect, decided not to use the National Environmental Policy Act — the law that requires proposed federal actions to be subjected to environmental impact 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 NEPA — rejecting appeals to take stronger action and leaving the playing field tilted in favor of the fossil fuel industry.
A few recent developments:
- Greenwire reported on August 18 (paywall subscription):
The head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week defended the agency’s refusal to analyze life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from proposed gas pipelines and export infrastructure despite unrest among climate advocates.
Cheryl LaFleur, who is slated to serve as chairwoman through April 2015, said during an interview from her Washington, D.C., office that FERC doesn’t believe it has the authority or should play the role under federal environmental laws of analyzing cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions from proposed gas projects.
FERC had refused, in connection with permitting a new natural gas pipeline, to include a broader review of the impacts of natural gas production, including fracking of the Marcellus Shale. FERC’s approach was upheld against a court challenge. Greenwire noted:
Environmental groups are pushing FERC and the Energy Department — the two federal agencies that have a hand in approving a growing queue of LNG export projects — to consider the broader effects of gas production and emissions. …
The groups were emboldened by U.S. EPA’s advice this year that FERC consider the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with Sempra Energy’s pipeline and terminal expansion proposal in Louisiana, as well as how the export terminal would affect demand for gas extraction and the environmental effects of increased production.
That’s the business-as-usual scenario under the current White House approach.
- The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, 350.org, and other groups called on the State Department to consider proposed U.S. permits for multiple proposed Canadian tar sands pipelines 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. “The Department can only understand the true climate impacts of these pipelines by analyzing their cumulative growth-inducing effect on tar sands development,” the groups said in an August 11 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
- On June 27 A U.S. district court judge blocked a permit for a proposed coal mine expansion project in Colorado, on the grounds that, in their required environmental impact assessment, federal regulators had failed to consider adequately the climate impacts of carbon emissions in approving the project.
Under NEPA, what would it take for the climate change implications of particular projects to be judged sufficient to block their implementation? What would it take for an analysis of the cumulative impacts of a related set of development projects to be sufficient to limit development by applying the analysis to particular projects? Here’s something that suggests possibilities:
In a February 18, 2010, memo to heads of federal departments and agencies on “Draft NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, Nancy Sutley, then the Chair of CEQ, wrote:
CEQ proposes to advise Federal agencies that they should consider opportunities to reduce GHG emissions caused by proposed Federal actions and adapt their actions to climate change impacts throughout the NEPA process and to address these issues in their agency NEPA procedures. …
When a proposed federal action meets an applicable threshold for quantification and reporting, as discussed above, CEQ proposes that the agency should also consider mitigation measures and reasonable alternatives to reduce action-related GHG emissions. Analysis of emissions sources should take account of all phases and elements of the proposed action over its expected life, subject to reasonable limits based on feasibility and practicality. …
Where an agency concludes that a discussion of cumulative effects of GHG emissions related to a proposed action is warranted to inform decision-making, CEQ recommends that the agency do so in a manner that meaningfully informs decision makers and the public regarding the potentially significant effects in the context of the proposal for agency action. This would most appropriately focus on an assessment of annual and cumulative emissions of the proposed action and the difference in emissions associated with alternative actions. …
Among the alternatives that may be considered for their ability to reduce or mitigate GHG emissions are enhanced energy efficiency, lower GHG-emitting technology, renewable energy, planning for carbon capture and sequestration, and capturing or beneficially using fugitive methane emissions. …
Climate change can increase the vulnerability of a resource, ecosystem, or human community, causing a proposed action to result in consequences that are more damaging than prior experience with environmental impacts analysis might indicate. …
The requirement of consideration of alternatives is meant to ensure that the agency consider approaches whose adverse environmental effects will be insignificant or at least less significant than those of the proposal. …
Federal actions may cause effects on the human environment that are not significant environment effects, in isolation, but that are significant in the aggregate or that will lead to significant effects. … “Cumulative impact” is defined in CEQ’s NEPA regulations as the “impact on the environment that results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions . . .” …
The purpose of cumulative effects analysis is to document agency consideration of the context and intensity of the effects of a proposal for agency action, particularly whether the action is related to other actions with individually insignificant but cumulatively significant impacts. … [underlining added]
When it issued the draft guidance, CEQ said: “After consideration of public comment, CEQ intends to expeditiously issue this guidance in final form.” By now, it’s reasonable to conclude that the White House has decided to kill the guidance — or, if it’s ultimately finalized, to make sure it isn’t strong enough to aid as a policy driver toward a sustainable energy transformation.
Many of the consequences of climate change are likely to be highly disruptive and costly for the United States. These include an increase in extreme weather; increased inundation in coastal regions; increased stress on water resources, storm runoff, and sewage systems; changes in land cover with disruption of a wide variety of essential ecological services and economic benefits; increasing stress on wildlife and biodiversity; ocean acidification; increasing health risks; impacts on Indigenous Peoples and cultures; and risks to the economy and to national security. Further, we face the real possibility of very disruptive impacts from abrupt climate change, thresholds, tipping points, and surprises.
Avoiding disastrous consequences for the biosphere and human society calls for major policy steps to chart a new course, both in the U.S. and internationally, toward phasing out the fossil energy system with a sustainable energy transformation. But the Obama administration, while claiming that it will use the executive tools at its disposal to limit the U.S. contribution to global climate disruption, won’t use the National Environmental Policy Act to raise a serious challenge to the current practice of giving approvals, one-by-one, on a project-by-project basis, to proposed coal, oil, and natural gas development and export projects.
- The federal government has, on a lease-by-lease basis, leased 2 billion tons of coal for mining on public lands in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, with several billion more in the works.
- The coal industry is seeking permits for new terminals in the Pacific Northwest for exporting coal to Asia, while the federal government has not undertaken a system-wide assessment of the climate change impacts of such development.
- The administration has fully supported a massive expansion of shale gas fracking, with no EPA environmental regulation in place nor any agency decision on whether to regulate, and with some studies estimating large fugitive methane emissions from the natural gas system.
- The government is moving to expedite permitting of multiple new terminals for exporting liquefied natural gas, without a cumulative impacts analysis, including analysis of how greatly expanded natural gas infrastructure might hinder renewable energy development.
- The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline remains under consideration, along with multiple related pipelines that the administration wants to consider only on a project-by-project basis, without a cumulative impacts assessment of tar sands development.
- New permits are given for deepwater drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, even after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout disaster.
- The government is moving to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean, and now exploration for oil in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast.
- Mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia has had tremendous impacts and continues, permit by permit.
Even with more aggressive use of cumulative impacts assessments and more aggressive consideration of alternatives, NEPA is just one executive tool and is limited in its power to drive decisionmaking. But refusing to use its possibilities to the fullest is just one more indicator of the administration’s approach, which is leading the system toward primary dependence on fossil fuels far into the 21st century.