The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 was signed into law on January 1, 1970, launching a decade marked by passage of key environmental legislation and increased awareness of environmental problems.
The act established the first comprehensive national policies and goals for the protection, maintenance, and use of the environment. The act also established the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to oversee NEPA and advise the president on environmental issues.
Title I of NEPA declares that the U.S. federal government will use all practicable means and measures to create and maintain conditions under which people and nature can exist in productive harmony, while fulfilling the social and economic requirements of Americans. Included in this declaration are goals to attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without undesirable consequences and to preserve culturally and aesthetically important features of the landscape. The declaration also commits each future generation of Americans to stewardship and preservation of the environment.
To achieve the national environmental goals, the act directs all federal agencies to evaluate the impacts of major federal actions upon the environment. Before taking an action, each federal agency must prepare a statement describing (1) the environmental impact of the proposed action, (2) adverse environmental effects that cannot be avoided, (3) alternatives to the proposal, (4) short-term versus long-term impacts, and (5) any irreversible effects on resources that would result if the action were implemented. The act requires any federal, state, or local agency with jurisdiction over the impacted environment to take part in the decision-making process. The general public is given opportunities to take part in the NEPA process through hearings and meetings or by submitting written comments to agencies involved in a project.
Title II of NEPA created the CEQ, as part of the Executive Office of the President, to oversee implementation of NEPA and assist the president in preparing an annual environmental quality report. In 1993, President Clinton established the White House Office on Environmental Policy, with broad powers to coordinate national environmental policy. The CEQ issued regulations in 1978 that implement NEPA and are binding on all federal agencies. The regulations (40 CFR Parts 1500-1508) cover procedures and administration of NEPA, including preparation of environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. Many federal agencies have established their own NEPA regulations, following CEQ regulations, but customized for the particular activities of the agencies.
Federal agencies must incorporate the NEPA review process early in project planning. A complete environmental analysis can be very complex, involving potential effects on physical, chemical, biological, and social factors of the proposed project and its alternatives. Various systematic methods have been developed to deal with the complexity of environmental analysis. There are three levels at which an action may be evaluated, depending on how large an impact it will have on the environment.
The first level is categorical exclusion, which allows an undertaking to be exempt from detailed evaluation if it meets previously determined criteria designated as having no significant environmental impact. Some federal agencies have lists of actions that have been thus categorically excluded from evaluation under NEPA.
When an action cannot be excluded under the first level of analysis, the agency involved may prepare an environmental assessment to determine if the action will have a significant environmental effect. An environmental assessment is a brief statement of the impacts of the action and alternatives. If the assessment determines there will not be significant environmental consequences, the agency issues a finding of no significant impact (FONSI). The finding may describe measures that will be taken to reduce potential impacts. An agency can skip the second level if it anticipates in advance that there will be significant impacts.
An action moves to the third level of analysis, an environmental impact statement (EIS), if the environmental assessment determines there will be significant environmental impacts. An EIS is a detailed evaluation of the action and alternatives, and it is used to make decisions on how to proceed with the action. An agency preparing an EIS must release a draft statement for comment and review by other agencies, local governments, and the general public. A final statement is released with modifications based on the results of the public review of the draft statement. When more than one agency is involved in an action, a lead agency is designated to coordinate the environmental analysis. An agency also may be called upon to cooperate in an environmental analysis if it has expertise in an area of concern. The CEQ regulations describe a process for settling disagreements that arise between agencies involved in an environmental analysis.
In addition to having to prepare their own environmental assessments and environmental impact statements, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is involved in all NEPA review processes of other federal agencies, as mandated by Section 309 of the Clean Air Act. Section 309 was added to the Clean Air Act in 1970, after NEPA was passed and the EPA formed, with the purpose of ensuring independent reviews of all federal actions impacting the environment. As a result, the EPA reviews and comments on all federal environmental impact statements in draft and final form, on proposed environmental regulations and legislation, and on other proposed federal projects the EPA considers to have significant environmental impacts. The EPA procedures for carrying out the Section 309 requirements are contained in the publication “Policies and Procedures for the Review of Federal Actions Impacting the Environment.” The EPA is also responsible for many administrative aspects of the EIS filing process. The NEPA review process includes an evaluation of a project's compliance with other environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act. Federal agencies often integrate NEPA reviews with review requirements of other environmental laws to expedite decision-making and reduce costs and effort.
Although NEPA is targeted to federal agencies, its implementation has resulted in closer scrutiny of major environmental actions other than those sponsored by the government. Environmental analyses also are required for private developments that need federal pollution control permits such as water discharges, air emissions, waste disposal, and wetlands filling.
The level of effort that compliance with NEPA can require due to a new act of Congress can be seen in regards to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (often simply referred to as the Recovery Act). The act directed that large government expenditures be made to create jobs (such as in public construction projects), encourage investment, and otherwise improve the U.S. economy during a time of recession. The large number of construction projects alone required a multitude of environmental reviews. Periodically, the CEQ has issued reports to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives concerning compliance of the Recovery Act with NEPA. The eleventh CEQ report concerning the Recovery Act was published in November 2011.
See also Clean Air Act (1963, 1970, 1977, 1990) ; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) .
Johnson, Dennis W. The Laws that Shaped America: Fifteen Acts of Congress and Their Lasting Impact. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Stern, Marc J., and Michael J. Mortimer. Exploring National Environmental Policy Act Processes Across Federal Land Management Agencies. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, 2009.
Council of Environmental Quality, Department of Energy. “The NEPA Statute.” http://ceq.hss.doe.gov/laws_and_executive_orders/the_nepa_statute.html (accessed August 13, 2012).
Teresa C. Donkin
Revised by Stacey Chamberlin