New Guidance Directs Federal Agencies to Assess GHG Emissions, Climate Impacts in Environmental Reviews

August 2, 2016

On August 2, 2016, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released final guidance on how federal agencies are to incorporate climate change considerations in their review of federal “actions” under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

NEPA requires federal agencies to conduct a review of the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and consider alternatives. Federal actions subject to NEPA review include a broad range of funding and permitting decisions, such as decisions to issue a permit to drill for oil on federal lands or spend federal funds to construct a bridge. Before making a decision on the action, federal agencies must evaluate the potential environmental impacts of the action, consider different alternatives, and allow the public to comment.  While NEPA does not require agencies to choose the alternative with the least environmental impact, it does require agencies to consider impacts in their decision making.

The new guidance directs agencies to consider climate change in their environmental review of proposed actions.  Agencies are advised to quantify greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that may be generated by a project or action, including both the direct and indirect impacts of the action on GHG emissions. For example, an agency considering a permit to mine coal on federal land would analyze both the GHG emissions from the mining activity itself and the GHG emissions from later burning the coal to generate electricity. Agencies are also to consider project alternatives that could reduce or mitigate the GHG pollution. Mitigation measures could include strategies such as improving energy efficiency, using lower GHG-emitting technology, or using sustainable land management practices.

The new guidance also directs agencies to consider the vulnerability of the project to the effects of climate change, like rising seas, increasing flood risks, and increasing temperatures. Federal agencies are to consider project alternatives that will increase the resilience of the project to future climate change impacts.  For example, federal agencies funding construction of a bridge would assess the vulnerability of the bridge to climate change impacts (like future sea-level rise and flooding) and analyze project alternatives that would reduce risks to the bridge (such as building the bridge higher). 

This guidance will help federal agencies make “climate-smart” choices that can help reduce the GHG emissions of federal projects and also reduce their vulnerability to future impacts of climate change.  In its report to the President, the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Climate Preparedness and Resilience Task Force (Task Force) called on CEQ to finalize the NEPA guidance.  These recommendations were also echoed in a report developed by the Georgetown Climate Center that informed the Task Force and recommended that the administration finalize this guidance directing agencies to consider climate change in federal decision making.

CEQ originally released draft guidance on incorporating climate change impacts into agencies’ environmental review processes in 2010 and issued revised guidance in 2014. Notice of the guidance will be published in the Federal Register by the end of the week of August 1, 2016.