In recent years, policymakers, practitioners, and scholars have increasingly considered how climate change should factor into existing environmental review obligations, including review of U.S. federal agency actions under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). Attention thus far has focused primarily on the critical question of how to account for an action’s contribution to climate change via direct, indirect, or cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. However, less focus has been given to the equally critical question of how actions will be affected by, and can prepare for, the impacts of climate change. This paper combines an extensive review of previously conducted Environmental Impact Statements (“EIS”) with an examination of the legal framework, current practices, and next steps for integrating that latter category of climate effects – what we term “climate impact analysis” – into NEPA reviews.
The paper concludes that, in order for federal agencies to fulfill their legal obligations under NEPA, the EISs they prepare must contain a comprehensive climate impact analysis. Drawing on previously identified best practices, we define three key requirements for climate impact analysis, namely that the analysis be (1) holistic, (2) specific, and (3) actionable. To determine whether federal agencies are conducting holistic, specific, and actionable climate impact analysis as required by NEPA, we reviewed all final EISs issued by federal agencies in connection with onshore energy projects in the five years from 2016 through 2020. We hypothesized that, because energy infrastructure is highly sensitive to climate change impacts (i.e., due to its place-based nature and condition-sensitive technology), energy-focused EISs should contain particularly high-quality climate impact analyses. Our review found the opposite: None of the surveyed EISs contained sufficiently holistic, specific, and actionable climate impact analysis to inform agency decision-makers.
Given the clear relevance of climate change to the requirements of NEPA, we recommend that the Council on Environmental Quality and other federal agencies take immediate steps to ensure sufficiently holistic, specific, and actionable climate impact analysis is conducted in environmental reviews.
Energy and Utilities Law | Environmental Law | Law
Romany M. Webb et al., Evaluating Climate Risk in NEPA Reviews: Current Practices and Recommendations for Reform, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School & Environmental Defense Fund, February 2022. Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/sabin_climate_change/185