White House Updates Draft Guidance on NEPA Greenhouse Gas Evaluations

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By Andrew Childers

Dec. 18 — Federal agencies should consider the climate impact of any action that would increase greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the White House Council on Environmental Quality said in updated draft guidance.

The draft guidance released Dec. 18 outlines how agencies should consider the impact of federal projects on climate change during reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. The latest draft updates similar draft guidance issued by the Council on Environmental Quality in 2010.

The draft guidance said evaluations of climate change impacts with less than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually don't warrant evaluation unless the analysis is “easily accomplished.” Additionally, the draft guidance directs federal agencies to focus on climate-resilient alternatives when evaluating projects.

CEQ oversees federal agency compliance with NEPA, which requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental impact of their actions, such as decisions on oil and gas leasing, dam building and public works projects and timber sales on federal lands.

“This is a big step forward,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said in a Dec. 18 statement. “Agency heads and the public will now be informed about the climate consequences of federal decisions. This is another milestone in implementing the President's Climate Action Plan.”

Emissions Won't Trigger Impact Statement

The Council on Environmental Quality said it “does not expect” that greenhouse gas emissions alone would trigger an environmental impact statement for a project. Though no single project will have a significant impact on climate change individually, the guidance said that isn't an excuse not to consider greenhouse gas emissions during a NEPA review.

“Therefore, the statement that emissions from a government action or approval represent only a small fraction of global emissions is more a statement about the nature of the climate change challenge, and is not an appropriate basis for deciding whether to consider climate impacts under NEPA,” the guidance said.

In addition to emissions, the draft guidance directs federal agencies to also consider the greenhouse gas sequestration potential of the project's location. That includes the emissions and sequestration impact of land management practices such as controlled burning, timber stand improvements, harvesting and livestock grazing.

“Notably, the net effect of these agency actions resulting in biogenic emissions may lead to reductions of GHG concentrations through increases in carbon stocks or reduced risks of future emissions,” the draft guidance said.

Alternatives Considered

As federal agencies consider project alternatives, that analysis should include greenhouse gas mitigation alternatives such as use of renewable energy, habitat restoration, sustainable land management practices and capturing fugitive methane emissions.

The Council on Environmental Quality first issued the draft guidance in February 2010. That guidance also directed federal agencies to analyze the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from federal actions that increase emissions by 25,000 tons per year or more of carbon dioxide-equivalent.

The Council on Environmental Quality will accept comments on the updated draft guidance for 60 days.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Childers in Washington at achilders@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com