The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has proposed a sweeping new revision to how the federal government decides whether a project is safe for the environment. The proposal would require federal agencies to consider climate change and “environmental justice” in reviews—however bureaucrats decide to define it.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as it was written in 1969, does not require agencies to consider climate change or environmental justice factors. The law is predominantly focused on local environments and the reasonably foreseeable effects a project might have on localities. CEQ guidance in 2016 required agencies to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, as well as consider cumulative effects. But a 2019 Trump administration revision recognized that those definitions “have been interpreted expansively” and resulted in too many “speculative effects” and “frequent litigation.”
The CEQ’s proposed regulatory changes significantly broaden the scope of NEPA, requiring agencies to consider “environmental trends, including anticipated climate-related changes to the environment.” Rather than thinking about specific locales and effects of different projects, the CEQ requires agencies to evaluate “global indirect and cumulative effects related to GHG emissions.”
The bar is lowered for green-energy projects, such as wind and solar. In the haste “to meet President Biden’s historic clean energy and infrastructure goals, a core component of Bidenomics,” environmental impact statements (EIS) may be waived if the agency believes the project will have “significant beneficial effects,” even if there are short-term negative effects. Fast-tracking renewable energy projects may lead to destructive environmental effects in the hopes that greenhouse gas emissions decline in the long term.
If Congress intended for agencies to consider climate change and “environmental justice” in their permitting processes, it had an opportunity to include such language in its historic NEPA revisions earlier this year, which the CEQ rule is now implementing. The major political and economic significance of the climate change and environmental justice regulations the CEQ proposes, with no “clear congressional authorization,” is ripe for a challenge under the major questions doctrine.
The proposed rule, while requiring shorter time frames and page lengths as the law requires, makes other trade-offs aside from its focus on climate. Public comments are no longer required to be as detailed or specific as under the Trump administration; perhaps that may facilitate “community input,” but less detail may mean less useful information for agencies to consider. While Congress did impose page limits on environmental reviews in its Fiscal Responsibility Act, the CEQ’s regulations impose no page limits on appendices to environmental reviews. Agencies could circumvent length requirements considerably by simply stuffing more information into an appendix.
The CEQ, in implementing the good reforms directed by Congress in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, creates a package deal of climate and “environmental justice” considerations that agencies must consider, too. While poring through hundreds of pages of regulations is not exhilarating, it is necessary because executive branch agencies implement environmental laws—often deviating substantially from Congress’ original intent. The CEQ will accept comments on the proposed rule until September 29, 2023.