GAO audit finds lack of data on environmental reviews

Federal agencies’ practices regarding their obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are inconsistent, making it difficult to analyze government-wide impacts of the environmental review process, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in a Tuesday report.

GAO found that most agencies only track data on their environmental impact statements (EIS), the most comprehensive action an agency would have to complete under NEPA. NEPA requires EISs, environmental assessments or categorical exclusions for projects that agencies complete, fund or permit, depending on the severity of environmental impact.

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“Governmentwide data on the number and type of most NEPA analyses are not readily available, as data collection efforts vary by agency,” GAO wrote.

GAO found that government-wide data on EISs is available, but the three sources of the data have different numbers.

Investigators also found that most agencies do not keep information on the costs of NEPA compliance.

“With few exceptions, the agencies we reviewed do not track the cost of completing NEPA analyses, although some of the agencies tracked information on NEPA time frames, which can be an element of project cost,” GAO said.

GAO also attempted to find the benefits of NEPA analysis, but found mostly qualitative answers, such as encouraging public participating and addressing design problems. NEPA disputes rarely result in litigation, but the litigation is extremely costly when they do.

The House Natural Resources Committee jumped on the report as an example of the lack of transparency and accountability in the government.

“Costly, abusive lawsuits and endless government red tape caused by NEPA harm new job creation, and there is a clear need to improve and modernize the law to ensure environmental reviews are completed in an efficient and timely manner so responsible decisions can be made on projects that will lead to new jobs and a growing economy,” Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said in a statement.

“The findings of this report are not insignificant and deserve to be given considerable attention and oversight moving forward,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation.

But Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the committee’s ranking member, said the report shows that the NEPA process encourages public participation and government accountability.

“The GAO report confirms what many NEPA supporters have argued for years,” DeFazio said in a statement. “NEPA gives the public a chance to engage their government in the democratic process, it holds the government more accountable, and it ultimately makes federal projects more efficient, which saves agency time and taxpayer dollars.”

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