As we noted previously, in the face of efforts to include language in the stimulus bill exempting stimulus projects from the requirements of NEPA, Senator Boxer proposed what you can describe either as a compromise or a fig leaf. Section 1609 of the bill provides that NEPA reviews will be expedited and resources will be devoted to facilitate such expedited reviews. According to the Environmental Reporter today, CEQ is going to be providing guidance to federal agencies on how to conduct such expedited reviews.
Despite my normal skepticism about agency guidance documents, such guidance would almost certainly be welcome in these circumstances. Agencies are obviously going to be under a lot of pressure to get the stimulus money out the door and CEQ is not going to want to be in the position taking the blame for being an obstacle. I am therefore hopeful that the guidance will indeed help facilitate these projects. If citizen suits are brought challenging the NEPA review for any particular project, CEQ’s interpretation of what’s acceptable should receive Chevron deference, thus likely insulating agency decisions resulting from following procedures promulgated by CEQ pursuant to § 1609.
In related news, new CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley has said that she wants “higher-level policymakers” to be more involved in NEPA reviews at their agencies than they have been in the past. If such early involvement is used to identify and resolve issues before they become problems, then who would not be pleased at this initiative? On the other hand, if such involvement is a mechanism for CEQ to have greater influence on agency decision-making, then I would be less sure of the benefits and more worried that politically sensitive agency decisions will just get bogged down, without any corresponding improvement in the quality of agency decision-making.