At its core, the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) mandate is simple: Before federal agencies (and the involved public or private partners) can put a shovel in the ground they must evaluate, document and report the potential social, economic and environmental impacts a project may create – keeping public stakeholders informed throughout the development process.
In brief, NEPA is about transparency for the public. It’s about making sure those in decision making roles serve as “trustees for succeeding generations” specific to protecting and nurturing our environment.
But what triggers NEPA, and what are the project consequences of ignoring this law? Does NEPA in fact produce better projects? What does the process entail? Let the following FAQ and downloadable and printable NEPA decision-making tool serve as your guide.
Download your copy of the NEPA decision-making checklist and flowchart
NEPA was signed into federal law in 1970 – setting the long-term stage for environmental policy for public and private projects in the U.S. It is a procedural statute that requires federal agencies to work through a number of steps while evaluating all potential social, economic and environmental impacts before construction can begin.
NEPA applies to all federal agencies and their actions – “actions” meaning projects, policies, permitting, as well as regulations and licensing. NEPA established the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to oversee process implementation and make sure federal agencies meet their obligations.
Federal funding! The NEPA process must be followed even if just $1 of federal money is allocated. Once federal funding is involved, the lead federal agency sets in motion, conducts and is ultimately responsible for seeing the process through. The lead federal agency can and often does delineate tasks, but everything filters up through them.
The NEPA statute applies to a broad range of federal government actions, including:
The NEPA process must be followed even if just $1 of federal money is allocated.
The consequences of not adhering to NEPA are severe and long-lasting. The responsibility of conducting the NEPA process (outlined in detail below) falls on the lead federal agency. As a result, the consequences often hit them the hardest. However, they distinctly impact private developers, communities within which projects are being planned and all other involved parties. These impacts include:
Environmental laws like the Clean Air Act often inspire excitement because they’re tied to specific outcomes (e.g., eliminating or reducing pollution). NEPA, on the other hand, is a procedural requirement and can feel like a time-consuming obstacle. But the reality is that NEPA plays a critical role in producing better projects. Here are four ways:
The NEPA process must include a lead federal agency (responsible for conducting the process and compliance), usually determined through jurisdictional authority. Examples include the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the lead federal agency for most highway projects; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for levee and flood control projects; the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for airport projects; and the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) for transit projects.
There are times when more than one federal agency may be involved. In these cases, the agencies serve as joint leads, or one or more agency may participate as a “cooperating agency.” For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) may be the lead federal agency for a solar farm on federal land while the Department of Energy (DOE) may serve as the cooperating agency.
When the government proposes a new dam or bridge, or when a private company seeks to build a pipeline that needs a federal permit, NEPA requires the lead federal agency to take several steps before breaking ground:
The following flowchart highlights each step in the NEPA process. At the conclusion of this article, you’ll find an in-depth decision-making checklist and tool (complimentary) that can be downloaded, printed and used to make sure your projects are proceeding the right way.
There are three primary categories of review and documentation as part of the NEPA process:
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Understanding the NEPA process directly impacts your ability to undertake projects in a legal, timely and transparent manner, and your ability to protect our built and natural environments. Don’t wait to familiarize yourself with the process.
Simply fill out the form to a downloadable and printable process flowchart and decision-making checklist you can use to further familiarize yourself with NEPA, understand the steps federal agencies and project sponsors are responsible for, and make sure your projects are proceeding the right way.
Chris Hiniker is a project manager and senior planner. He is a certified planner through the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) with over 33 years of experience. Over his 20+ year career with SEH, Chris has specialized in transportation planning and environmental review and documentation. Contact Chris directly for additional insight into the NEPA process and where to begin! Contact Chris