The CEQ Issues Draft Guidance on Consideration of Climate Change Under NEPA

Late last week, the CEQ issued its long-awaited draft Guidance on how to factor climate change into NEPA reviews. CEQ explicitly stated the draft is not effective at this time. CEQ will take comment for 90 days and “intends to expeditiously issue this Guidance in final form” after close of the comment period. Assuming CEQ does so, it will join several states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts, which already require that climate change be addressed in their state NEPA analogues.

The draft is very limited in scope at this point; CEQ may have decided that what is most important is simply the statement that climate change is real, it matters, and it therefore must be taken into account under NEPA. For example, CEQ proposes a threshold a 25,000 tpy of direct emissions CO2e for NEPA applicability. The Guidance does not propose to apply this threshold to indirect emissions, “the analysis of which must be bounded by limits of feasibility.” Shocking recognition of what’s actually possible.

There are some tidbits that will nonetheless give pause to those who expect to be subject to this Guidance. First, the Guidance does discuss the need to consider the cumulative effects of GHG emissions. This is not surprising, given that NEPA already requires consideration of cumulative impacts outside the GHG context, but since all GHG impacts are cumulative, it is of particular importance here. Second, the Guidance also notes that project planners must consider the impact of climate change on projects, as well as the impact of projects on climate change. The example given in the Guidance is a plan for transportation infrastructure on a barrier island. The Guidance also suggests a longer-term time horizon than may have been used in the past. The example here is that of an industrial process drawing water from a source that relies on snow pack that is expected to decrease as a result of climate change.

As noted above, CEQ spends a lot of effort making the case that the Guidance is not a radical document. The phrase “rule of reason” is used no less than four times in the draft Guidance – and it feels like more. Nonetheless, I doubt opponents will be satisfied. I suspect that they – like the CEQ itself – believe that the fact of the document is more important than its immediate requirements.

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