Last month, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf wrote to the Federal Highway Administration, stating that Oakland “is suffering from a crippling housing and homelessness crisis.” Furthermore, she complained that:
Addressing this crisis requires flexibility and creativity. … Federal environmental responsibilities, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), can slow, discourage, or prevent these creative solutions. We must streamline the NEPA process as much as possible, including maximizing the use of Categorical Exclusions for these types of projects.
As Greenwire (subscription required) noted, environmental activists were quick to assert that Schaaf’s complaints about NEPA were no different than those of the Trump administration. However, simplistic demonization of all attempts at NEPA reform does not quite rise to the level of reasoned argument.
I mention Schaaf’s letter because it underscores the points I made in my most recent post about NEPA reform. Schaaf also raises an important point that I did not address in my post, which focused on the need to reform NEPA in order to facilitate renewable energy development. Mayor Schaaf focused on affordable housing.
However, it’s worth noting that the issues are not unrelated. A lot of energy use in the United States is tied to housing patterns. Solving the climate crises requires not just clean electricity. It requires vibrant cities with functioning mass transit systems and green affordable housing. Can you say transit-oriented development?
And yet, many transit-oriented development projects, which can provide needed affordable housing where residents have access to mass transit to get to work, face NEPA reviews that “can slow, discourage, or prevent these creative solutions.”
We need to figure out ways – creative solutions, dare I say? – to preserve the essential function of NEPA without bureaucratic paralysis that could obstruct progress towards mitigation of climate change – and other worthy social goals.
Empathy with the “purpose and need” here notwithstanding, the case for Federal “categorical exclusion” seems to have devils in the details that FHA through NEPA (and the also applicable California Environmental Quality Review by Caltrans) should be analyzing and incorporating into their decisions. If they are not already doing so, these agencies should consolidate their reviews to shorten duration and ensure comprehensive scope. However, adding and/or relocating large enough numbers of people to specific neighborhoods in Oakland could have significant impact tradeoffs . It’s a drought-stricken region on a highly-stressed, highly important estuary. How much will the housing projects affect water supplies and disturb/liberate contaminants? Having offspring who lived in Oakland for several years, I have some understanding of the transportation and traffic problems and needs for improvements, but isn’t it the “essential function” of the NEPA/CEQRA analyses to sort these out by appropriate analyses and to make impact mitigation recommendations?
Charles: Thanks. I don’t think that categorical exclusions are the solution to NEPA delays, though they have their place. We still have to figure out ways to move through NEPA more efficiently, including, as you note, consolidating reviews by different stakeholders.
The most time consuming aspect of NEPA is often the year or more spent scoping and collecting original field data, including , for example, meteorological, biological, noise, traffic, etc. This could be reduced if one could get agency agreement to accept high- confidence estimates ( say 90%) and allowing for confirmatory actual follow- up sampling if any of the estimates proved critical to a projection of significantly adverse impact.