The July 15 release of newly revised Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulations for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) was hailed as an effort to streamline the process for environmental analysis and documentation of proposed federal actions. Previous regulations for this lynchpin of environmental laws were first promulgated in 1978 with one limited substantive amendment in 1986. So, while the effort to modernize these regulations is timely and appropriate, the result falls short of providing necessary environmental protection.
Instead, the changes do more to benefit infrastructure developers and proponents of resource extraction from federal public lands. Of major concern to those of us who value the mountain environment and backcountry winter recreation in Colorado is the failure to recognize climate change in the revised rule. The lack of a requirement to analyze the probable effect of a proposed action on climate change, should not be justified by pointing to anticipated separate CEQ guidelines referred to as Greenhouse Gas Emissions analysis.
Removal of the cumulative and indirect analysis requirements is a major omission because it defeats the understanding of how the specific environmental impacts of a proposed action could become significant when considered in context with previous and likely future actions in the same proximate location. Limiting the analysis to just the specific action under consideration could understate its likely environmental effects.
Federal agencies normally conduct an Environmental Analysis (EA) to determine the potential environmental effects of a proposed undertaking. But failure to retain a requirement for analyzing the significance of probable environmental impacts of a proposed action as well as failure to include an updated definition of significance for this purpose may result in preparation of fewer Environmental Impact Statements (EIS’s) and more Findings of No Significant Impact (FONSI’s) because the EA process could understate potentially significant impacts of a proposed action.
Generous allowance in the new regulations for use of Categorical Exclusions and FONSI’s versus the more structured EA-EIS approach to NEPA analysis and documentation will play into the hands of fossil energy developers and infrastructure proponents for faster approvals. Furthermore, more lenient involvement of proponents in the environmental analysis process of their proposals is inconsistent with an unbiased approach by the approving agency.
The revised regulations would limit public involvement and restrict the scope of environmental analyses to expedite development without prioritizing transparency, science-based decision making, and environmental considerations NEPA requires. I support the efforts of Winter Wildlands Alliance, American Alpine Club, and other organizations to overturn the recent revision of the CEQ regulations for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act.
Bob Moore is President of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association and former Colorado State Director for the US Bureau of Land Management.