Methods Federal Government Agencies Implement to Comply with the National Environmental Policy Act

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2016-04-27

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Abstract

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) became the first major environmental law in the United States (US) in 1970. NEPA requires federal agencies to determine significant environmental impacts of their actions to the fullest extent possible. Each agency is given flexibility in their compliance (Congress, 1970). Oversight of agency compliance with NEPA was given to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) by Congress within the Act. CEQ issued regulations in 1978 to direct agencies on fundamental requirements for compliance with the Act.

Government employees understand that NEPA needs to be implemented within federal agencies to comply with the Act. However, levels of compliance with NEPA vary. Unlike most US environmental laws, there are no monetary fines associated with agencies' non-compliance with the Act (Knudsen, n.d.). As such, the public's oversight of federal actions, through public participation, Congressional complaints, and litigation, influence agency compliance with NEPA.

This study determines implementation methods employed by NEPA practitioners to integrate the Act and CEQ regulations into their agency, specifically within their decision-making and action planning processes. This study also identifies factors that impede integration of NEPA implementation methods into federal agency decision-making and action planning processes. Lastly, this study seeks to determine improvements in current implementation methods and processes that can be employed by federal agencies to better implement and comply with NEPA.

Twelve federal agencies were examined for this study, and 15 interviews were conducted with federal government employees working within the US Executive Branch. Eugene Bardach's (2012) policy research "tree of knowledge" was used to inform this study, with "people leading to people, people leading to documents, documents leading to documents, and documents leading to people." This study is based on Leo A. Goodman's qualitative research procedure in Snowball Sampling. The snowball sampling approach allows for this study to determine and understand methods implemented by federal agencies for NEPA compliance through interviews with a versatile group of NEPA practitioners.

This study identified four methods used by agencies to implement the NEPA process into federal decision-making. NEPA training allows decision-makers to initiate the NEPA process when an action is proposed. Programmatic environmental documents review any cumulative environmental impacts from geographical locations, projects, and cumulative actions. Master plans integrate NEPA into agency budget and project planning processes. Information Technology (IT) systems allow for institutional knowledge and historic NEPA reviews to be archived in IT Decision Support Systems (DSS) to create more effective NEPA reviews. IT Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are prevalent in federal agency decision-making to efficiently locate environmental attributes near potential action sites. Information- and knowledge-sharing, informed decisions, and archived NEPA documents are realized benefits of using IT systems for NEPA.

Practices implemented by agencies should make the NEPA process more efficient and effective to minimize federal actions' potential environmental impacts. As agencies introduce programmatic environmental assessments on a larger scale, data on environmental attributes in large geographical areas (e.g., centers, forests, installations) can improve GIS survey data. Federal agencies should move toward sharing environmental survey data so that current and relevant environmental attributes and constraints can be listed within one GIS platform. One centralized GIS platform would eliminate duplicative data collection efforts, thereby saving time and funding, and allow for valuable information-sharing.

NEPA guidance documents, regulations, memorandums, and data sets should also be located on a centralized website. This study recommends that CEQ transition to an EOP website to provide one centralized location for all NEPA guidance documents; a secure, comprehensive IT GIS platform; and a DSS for all EAs and EISs. A DSS should support EAs and EISs to be available for public information, with links to Regulations.gov for public comments to be submitted. NEPA documents not requiring public review and comment should be stored on individual agency DSS platforms.

Use of comprehensive IT systems for NEPA provides seamless environmental review processes and cohesive flow amongst agencies, between the federal government and the public, and over the years. With information electronically linked, decision-makers will be able to access a centralized CEQ GIS system to locate any environmental constraints near their proposed action site, thereby promoting efficient and effective environmental reviews. Agency DSSs should also be connected with the agency's allocation of funding so that NEPA is incorporated into decision-making processes before funding is provided.

Programmatic reviews can be conducted using centralized GIS data, both in individual agencies and collaboratively with other federal agencies. Further, electronic master plans can be more useful when linked to a centralized IT GIS and agency DSS platforms. Completed NEPA reviews can be readily available in DSSs for action proponents to integrate environmental considerations into their actions, for senior management to view project statuses, and for NEPA programs to access proposed, current, and historic reviews. Once IT systems are in use for agencies to comply with NEPA to the fullest extent possible, NEPA practitioners can identify and focus on other areas, including policies and implementing procedures, for NEPA compliance improvement.

Lastly, CEQ should update their 1978 NEPA regulations. The CEQ NEPA regulations influenced a transition from environmental impact statements (EIS) to categorical exclusions (CATEX), with 95% to 98% of actions currently qualifying for categorical exclusions. Because this shift was not foreseen, the NEPA regulations do not speak to the use of categorical exclusions at length. While guidance documents and memorandums have been published in the past 38 years, no revisions to the original mandate have been issued. NEPA program managers interviewed for this study believe CEQ should update the regulations to provide further clarification for problems still found in the NEPA process, including use of EAs and solutions for improved compliance.

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Carter, Lee Ellen, and Lee Carter (2016). Methods Federal Government Agencies Implement to Comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/11874.


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.