On Monday, 33 Senators wrote a letter to the Chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) expressing concern about a dramatic expansion of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). A federal statute enacted in 1970, NEPA was developed to require federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their actions, such as issuing federal permits for land development. NEPA, as it is applied today, is a red tape, bureaucratic mess that slows economic growth by holding expansion projects up at the permitting stage, far beyond what is necessary to perform a reasonable environmental review.
As the Senators discuss in their letter, there have been rumors floating around Washington that the Administration intends to finalize updated NEPA guidance, instructing all federal agencies to expand their environmental reviews to consider the impacts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is a very bad idea. On average, it already takes 3.5 years to navigate through the NEPA environmental review process. As we have seen for a select group of projects where agencies have waded into GHG emissions – think large, politically-charged, trans-border, infrastructure projects – trying to account for their GHG impacts adds years to the permitting process.
If we are serious about growing the economy and creating jobs, we cannot afford to add another layer of ambiguity, uncertainty and red tape to our already overly cumbersome federal environmental review process. Frankly speaking, GHGs are too complicated for NEPA. Nearly every economic activity, from building a factory to constructing a highway to placing a solar farm in the dessert, has layers upon layers of direct and indirect GHG impacts associated with it: Raw materials must be pulled from the ground and often refined. Trucks, trains, planes and ships must deliver those materials to a factory.
A factory must assemble and deliver finished goods to a project location or warehouse. The goods are then installed or used for their intended purpose. All of these activities emit GHGs. How far back and how far forward from the project in question are we to quantify emissions? And how are agencies to measure the climate impacts of discrete projects emitting GHGs that collect in the earth’s atmosphere indiscriminate of location? The draft guidance suggests using, “reasonable spatial and temporal boundaries.” Crystal clear, no? Legal careers could be made, houses built, retirements funded on arguing what is included within the “reasonable spatial and temporal boundary.”
The politics of climate change aside, this is getting out of hand. Rational thought and a reasonable review of the original intention of the statute lead to a clear conclusion: NEPA was not intended to address GHG emissions.
Greg Bertelsen is director of energy and resources policy, National Association of Manufacturers.