Agencies set record for lengthy NEPA studies -- analysis
Date:  10/30/2015
ArticleType:  Other

REGULATIONS: Agencies set record for lengthy NEPA studies -- analysis

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, October 29, 2015

Federal agencies took an average of 4.7 years to complete environmental impact statements finalized in 2014, the longest preparation time in nearly two decades of record keeping, according to a new report issued by the National Association of Environmental Professionals.

It took agencies an average of 1,709 days to get from a notice of intent -- the first step in preparing an EIS -- to publication of a final EIS, according to NAEP. That's four days longer than the previous record set in 2013 and up from fewer than 1,200 days in 2000.

The annual report, which is authored by NAEP members, monitors how federal agencies administer the National Environmental Policy Act, a law signed in 1970 by President Nixon that is heralded by environmental groups. The report is available to NAEP members, and a copy was provided to Greenwire.

NEPA requires public disclosure of the impacts of projects that are funded or permitted by the federal government. Its supporters call it a critical bulwark against rushed government decisions that can lead to ecological harm or threats to public safety. But Republicans and industry groups have sought to curtail its use, calling it an impediment to economic uses of public lands.

NEPA delays and inefficiencies are primarily the result of inadequate funding and staffing, according to NAEP members. Yet the law is a critical tool to informing smart decisions on biodiversity, climate change, environmental justice and sustainability, it said.

"It should be about thinking before we leap, about having a conversation between the agency and its stakeholders, and about addressing the issues that are important to those who are affected," the report said. "When a document is produced, it can be a roadmap for policies and practices that the agency will undertake in the future."

The vast majority of NEPA reviews consist of categorical exclusions that typically take days. But roughly 5 percent are lengthier environmental assessments and less than 1 percent are EISs, the White House Council on Environmental Quality has estimated.

NAEP's report tracked 384 EISs that were published in the Federal Register in 2014, 200 of which were draft EISs and 184 of which were final EISs.

The Forest Service issued the most documents at 89, with the Army Corps of Engineers coming in second with 44. The Federal Highway Administration with 43 and the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service -- both with 25 -- rounded out the top five agencies.

The EISs were mostly performed in the West, which is likely a reflection of the predominance of federal lands in those states, the report found.

California led the way among states with 70 EISs. Colorado, Florida and Washington were tied for second with 19 each.

Both the Park Service and the Army Corps, which together accounted for one-fifth of the government's EISs in 2014, set individual records for longest average time to get from notice to final EIS. The Park Service took 7.7 years, the second-longest of any federal agency and shattering its past record of 6.2 years set in 2011. The Army Corps took 5.6 years, which was 51 days higher than its previous record in 2001.

The Highway Administration's average time was 6.5 years, the Forest Service's was 3.5 years and BLM's was 3.9 years, the report found.

The report also tracked attempts by Congress to curb the use of NEPA for projects like oil and gas drilling, logging, dams, and grazing.

In the 113th Congress, 240 bills contained the phrase "National Environmental Policy Act," with at least a quarter proposing some changes to NEPA compliance.

But only four bills making substantive changes to NEPA were signed into law:

  • The Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act, which directed the agency to apply categorical exclusions to small hydropower projects.
  • The 2014 farm bill, which allowed the Forest Service to use a categorical exclusion for certain logging projects up to 3,000 acres.
  • The National Defense Authorization Act of 2014, which offered categorical exclusions for grazing permits and leases where current management practices do not change.
  • The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, which declared that the "like-kind repair or reconstruction of water resources projects damaged by events that result in presidential disaster declarations are to be actions categorically excluded," according to the report. It also established financial penalties for agencies that fail to complete their required approval or decision by established deadlines.

Federal agencies also were generally successful when their NEPA reports were challenged in federal appeals courts, the report found.

Appeals courts in 2014 issued 22 substantive decisions on NEPA implementation involving 11 agencies. The agencies prevailed nearly 90 percent of the time.

The cost of NEPA reviews varies wildly, and records on those costs are not consistently kept by federal agencies, according to a 2014 Government Accountability Office report (E&ENews PM, April 15, 2014).