National Environmental Policy Act in the US

Executive Summary

The 20th century has seen a significant number of industrial disasters, which significantly contributed to the deterioration of the natural environment. The globalization of trade and commercial operations increased the level of pollution at both international and domestic levels. According to the statistical data, the presence of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and some other substances in the atmosphere has increased during 1990-2005 by 892 MMT (from 6,397 to 7,379 MMT) (“Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks” ES-4). Based on this, the environmental protection represents one of the significant public and political concerns.

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The public largely stimulated the development of environmental initiatives. Many organizations and governmental agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, strive to protect the human health and environment by integrating public opinions into the decision-making procedures. Public involvement is one of the main requirements of NEPA. By taking into account the public interest, the act aims to “improve the content of the Agency’s decisions and enhance the deliberative process” (“Public Involvement Policy” 1).

Background

The NEPA was developed and enacted in response to the public concern regarding the ecological problems, including the “deteriorating quality of the ‘human’ environment and the inadequate consideration of environmental impacts of major federal projects” (Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] para. 1). The act covers multiple areas of the human environment, including the geological, physical, social, biological, and cultural ones. The document’s major intent is to motivate federal agencies to incorporate the values of environmental protection into their management and decision-making activities to provide safe and esthetically pleasing surroundings for the citizens (FEMA para. 1). The ultimate purposes of the NEPA are “to declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man” (U.S. Department of Energy 1).

Public involvement is one of the most important NEPA requirements. According to the guidelines provided in the act, the federal agencies may pursue public engagement through the implementation of an interdisciplinary approach to research and inquiry of information from the external parties; presenting the study results for the public comment; and consideration of the public feedback when making the final decision (U.S. Department of Homeland Security IV-6-7). The given requirement is aligned with the act’s purposes as it is meant to increase the effectiveness of the governmental mission and activities, and develop trust in the communities.

The act does not dictate any particular practices or programs but only provides the guidelines for making “prudent decisions” after evaluating all risks and potential effects associated with projects and actions (policies, licensing, permitting, etc.) (Jaworski para. 1). However, before the NEPA was enacted, there were no standards for a transparent decision-making process regarding environmental impacts and consideration of the public interest. One of the primary reasons for passing the NEPA was the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969.

It was the third-largest oil spill in the country’s history, and its environmental and financial effects were devastating – it severely affected the local fauna, caused the suspension of fishing, and resulted in tourism drop (“National Environmental Policy Act” para. 2). The industrial disaster provoked a serious public outcry and criticism and revealed a need for environmental legislation. Before 1969, decision-makers usually informed the public post factum, but the act allowed taking into account the public opinions and a proactive approach. As Spooner mentions, “the fact that agencies have to inform the public is often enough to halt or postpone projects of grave environmental damage thanks to negative public opinion” (para. 2). Additionally, the NEPA implementation is monitored by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) (Jaworski para. 1).

In general, the NEPA decision-making process includes the following steps: 1) to identify the environmental issues that should be addressed, 2) to determine all alternatives which can help to intervene the identified problems, 3) to research all potential environmental concerns, 4) to comply with the relevant environmental regulations, and 5) inform and involve the public by using the specifically developed documentation process (U.S. Department of Energy 2-3). Jaworski specifies that there are two major categories of the NEPA documents: an Environmental Impact Statement (for actions which may entail severe environmental effects or public turmoil), and an Environmental Assessment (for unclear impacts on the ecological state) (para. 2). After the composition of the initial document, a federal agency accountable for the process provides the conclusive decision considering the information in the developed NEPA document. The final finding is titled “Record of Decision” for the Environmental Impact Statement and “Finding of No Significant Impact” for the Environmental Assessment (Jaworski para. 2).

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Policy Recommendation

According to the “Task Force on Improving the National Environmental Policy Act,” state environmental review processes are allowed to meet the NEPA requirement “where such state procedures are functionally equivalent to NEPA procedures” (Kass and McCarrol para. 5). Some states, including New York and California, have their laws similar to the NEPA. According to the local regulations, the research and policy verification processes are meant to cover the actions that do not meet the federal law’s jurisdiction. However, it contradicts the core NEPA purposes and recommendations to the federal agencies to monitor their decision’s environmental impacts. For instance, New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act authorizes private project sponsors to prepare the environmental findings reports (Kass and McCarrol para. 5). However, to achieve a greater level of transparency and accountability, the CEQ should strictly limit the implementation of state environmental processes that are less protective than the NEPA, which restricts public participation and provide less detailed findings regarding the ecological effects of actions. Unless the application of the state-required comment procedures is limited, the NEPA’s positive influence will be diluted.

Information Gaps

In the memo, we mention the state environmental acts equivalent to the NEPA. The policy analysis will benefit if the given documents are reviewed in greater detail to identify similar points with the evaluated act. Additionally, the inclusion of the NEPA’s international reviews could help analyze its strengths and weaknesses more efficiently.

Conclusion

The analysis results revealed that the NEPA had a positive effect on the environmental state as it increased transparency in the federal decision-making processes by requiring greater public involvement. The act emphasizes the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in studying the actions’ potential ecological effects and provides a set of recommendations for the agencies to follow in the research and reporting. The main disadvantage of the act is that it fails to restrict the widespread use of the state environmental processes because the definitions of when the local legislation may be considered equivalent to the NEPA are not given. Based on this, it can be suggested to include the definition of equal or less protective measures into the act.

Works Cited

Federal Emergency Management Agency. “National Environmental Policy Act.” Department of Homeland Security, Web.

Jaworski, Susan. “NEPA 101: Introduction to United States Environmental Policy.” Environmental Science, Web.

Kass, Stephen and Jean McCarrol. “‘Improving’ the National Environmental Policy Act?.” Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP. 2014, Web.

“National Environmental Policy Act.” Wild Law, Web.

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Spooner, Alecia M. “What Environmental Protection Laws Exist in the United States.” Dummies, Web.

U.S. Department of Energy. “The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, as Amended.” U.S. Department of Energy, Web.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Instruction Manual 023-01-001-01, Revision 01, Implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).” Department of Homeland Security. 2014, Web.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2014.” Environmental Protection Agency, 2016, Web.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Public Involvement Policy.” The City of Albuquerque, 2003, Web.

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