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November 3, 2011

CEQ Undertakes Two Additional Pilot Projects Aimed to Improve Efficiency of NEPA Review

CEQ Undertakes Two Additional Pilot Projects Aimed to Improve Efficiency of NEPA Review    

By Andrea A. Matarazzo

The Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) recently announced two new projects as National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA)” pilot efforts under an initiative launched earlier this year seeking ideas for innovative ways to increase efficiency of federal environmental review.  The CEQ has selected a proposal to gather lessons learned from agencies with significant experience preparing Environmental Assessments; these lessons will be used to create “best practice principles” to facilitate more efficient and cost-effective NEPA review.  The CEQ also selected a project to make a NEPA information technology tool more user-friendly and available to the public.  According to Nancy Sutley, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality,  “these pilot projects will help federal agencies save time and money,” and are expected to “promote more efficient and effective environmental reviews for projects that create jobs, grow our economy, and protect the health and environment of our communities.”

Pilot Project on Best Practice Principles for Environmental Assessments

Many federal agencies frequently rely on environmental Assessments (“EAs”), one of three types of NEPA documents, to comply with environmental review requirements under NEPA.  If a federal agency prepares an EA and finds there will be no significant impact on the environment resulting from a proposed project, then the agency can proceed without completing a more intensive Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”).  Because limited guidance exists on the preparation of EAs, federal agencies often dedicate significant time and resources preparing lengthy documents that are more complex and difficult to comprehend than necessary or originally intended.  Even so, agencies can still find themselves in costly litigation challenged with demonstrating they provided adequate environmental review and a reasonable basis for their decisions.

Under this NEPA pilot project, the National Association of Environmental Professionals (“NAEP”) will engage agencies and NEPA practitioners with experience in preparing EAs, assemble lessons learned, and design best practice principles to present in a report to the CEQ.  The CEQ will seek public comment and input on the proposed principles and, once finalized, provide them to agency NEPA practitioners and use them as a training and educational tool.  Experience-based best practice principles will focus on the preparation of effective, properly focused EAs that are less time consuming and costly.  The CEQ expects that applying best practice principles will improve the quality and transparency of agency decision making by decreasing the length and complexity of EAs, encouraging the use of timelines and page limit ranges, providing for expedited review, and promoting public involvement.

Pilot Project to Improve Access to “NEPAssist” Information Tool

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s NEPAssist Geographic Information System is a web-based application to help federal, tribal, state and local NEPA practitioners effectively analyze and use environmental and geographic data relevant to the NEPA process.  Some of the key features of NEPAssist include:

  • Employing standardized data-sets from federal, state, and local agencies;
  • Providing access to real-time data and customizable regional reports and analysis;
  • Improving early coordination between partner agencies;
  • Reducing the time to review federal agencies’ scoping notices and projects at early stages of development; and
  • Assisting users to direct project locations to the least environmentally-sensitive areas and identify areas where impacts should be avoided or mitigation would be most helpful.

 

This pilot project is expected to improve the interface for NEPAssist to make it easier to access and encourage more agencies to take advantage of it.  NEPAssist also will be publicly available online in the spring of 2012, providing the public and stakeholders access to this tool.

Authored by:

Andrea A. Matarazzo

(916) 496-8500

(916) 737-5838 (Direct)

andrea@pioneerlawgroup.net

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