Energy & Environment

Obama asks agencies to consider climate in environmental reviews

The White House is formally asking that federal agencies consider the climate change impacts of any decision they make that requires an environmental review.

In a guidance document made final Tuesday, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is setting specific standards for how to incorporate climate into evaluations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

{mosads}The advice from the CEQ could have wide-ranging effects across the federal government; NEPA analyses must be completed for a large group of activities like oil and natural gas drilling, pipeline construction, highway construction and any other federal action that could affect the environment.

“The final guidance is another big step in the administration’s effort to consider how all types of federal actions will impact climate change and identify opportunities to build climate resilience,” the CEQ said in a fact sheet accompanying the guidance.

“Analyzing a proposed action’s [greenhouse gas] emissions and the effects of climate change relevant to a proposed action — particularly how climate change may change an action’s environmental effects — can provide useful information to decision makers and the public,” says the guidance itself.

Agencies are asked both to account for the greenhouse gas impact of their actions and for the impact of climate change on their actions, such as whether a bridge will be able to withstand the future weather extremes.

The guidance is not a regulation, and is technically only an interpretation of NEPA itself. Federal agencies are not legally required to follow it.

Tuesday’s release is the culmination of years of work by the administration, which has been trying since 2010 to formalize a policy on climate change in NEPA.

Congressional Republicans have tried to block it all along the way, arguing that it is unnecessary and asks agencies to forecast something that cannot be reliably predicted — climate change.

“Finding the practical and legal basis for this guidance deserves a Gold Medal for mental gymnastics,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in a statement.

“This will result in significant new litigation exposure that will slow or block most every major activity requiring NEPA approval. When any emissions equals bad and bad equals denied, you can kiss energy independence goodbye,” he said.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said CEQ has no power to enforce the guidance, since it has not had a Senate-confirmed head since 2014.

“Further, even if there were a Senate-confirmed Chairman of CEQ, global climate change falls outside of the scope of NEPA so the guidance has no legal basis,” Inhofe said.

But environmentalists cheered the guidance as a game changer.

“Now federal agencies must fully and properly analyze the climate impacts of their proposed actions before deciding on how to proceed,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“They shouldn’t approve mines that will destroy the climate, or bridges that will get washed away. That’s consistent with the foundational National Environmental Policy Act.”

The Sierra Club said it’s critical to get the entire government on the same page on climate reviews.

“This guidance will result in a more transparent decision making process, with better informed decision makers on issues that affect our climate,” said Liz Perera, climate policy director at the Sierra Club.

— This story was updated at 5:15 p.m.

Tags Climate change National Environmental Policy Action Rob Bishop

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