Sunday, January 03, 2010

Federal NEPA environmental rules to consider climate change (except they do already)

The news says Obama administration will come out soon with guidance on how climate change is to be incorporated into the National Environmental Policy Act, the main federal law on how environmental impacts are to be taken into consideration whenever the federal government takes action.

Sounds a little bigger than it is - NEPA disclosures have already considered climate impacts for years. When I was a law student in the late 1990s, we pushed for and got climate change consideration in a Forest Service NEPA document, overcoming some initial resistance. What's new (and beneficial) is formal, administrative guidance on how to handle the issue.

The news article also says this:

In a letter responding to Inhofe and Barrasso, Sutley said the act "cannot be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions," suggesting that the administration would not block projects simply because they would add carbon dioxide to the air.

I think the reporter is reading too much into that statement, which really means that NEPA will not provide substantive controls over greenhouse gases as a whole. Under NEPA, any administrative decision-maker could theoretically decide that the negative climate impacts of a project outweigh its benefits, and kill the project.

There is a more general problem, however, with NEPA and its California equivalent, CEQA. Small projects with small impacts are supposed to get only limited environmental review unless they cumulatively contribute to large impacts, in which case they're supposed to get extensive and expensive environmental review. Any honest assessment of small projects with climate impacts would determine they have a cumulatively significant impact, but it's not feasible to do massive review on every small project. I'm not sure how they're going to solve this issue.

Bonus blogging: I don't know why some people like The Caryatids, but I'd give it a B-minus at most. Some interesting ideas about what might happen in the climate-changed future, combined with some not-at-all interesting ideas about a supervolcano under Yosemite and the sun going nova, with a plot where virtually nothing but exposition happens for the first sixty pages and for many interludes afterwards.

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