On January 9, 2023, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued interim guidance to assist federal agencies in analyzing greenhouse gas (GHG) and climate change effects of their proposed actions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). CEQ wants federal agencies to make use of this guidance immediately while seeking public comment. CEQ will revise the guidance in response to public comments that are due by March 10, 2023.
What’s interesting about this development is that CEQ has gone back and forth on GHG guidance the past 10 years based on changing presidential administrations. This reflects the administration’s attempt to clarify and update CEQ’s 2016 GHG guidance, recognizing that federal agencies are needing clearer guidance about how to consider the effects of GHG and climate change when evaluating proposed major federal actions in accordance with NEPA.
Climate change is a global environmental challenge that poses an existential threat to human and natural systems. Human activities are responsible for the rising global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and subsequent changes in climate. The concentration of carbon dioxide has risen to 414.21 ppm and methane has more than doubled from pre-industrial levels. The effects of climate change include increased heatwaves, wildfires, sea-level rise, and harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife, and ecosystems. These effects disproportionately affect vulnerable communities.
Summary of Key Content of GHG Guidance
The guidance explains how agencies should apply NEPA principles and existing best practices to their climate change analyses. Key points in the guidance for agencies preparing NEPA documentation are listed below.
- Leverage early planning processes to integrate GHG emissions and climate change considerations into the identification of proposed actions, reasonable alternatives (as well as the no-action alternative), and potential mitigation and resilience measures.
- Quantify a proposed action’s projected GHG emissions or reductions for the expected lifetime of the action, considering available data and GHG quantification tools that are suitable for the proposed action.
- Use projected GHG emissions associated with proposed actions and their reasonable alternatives to help assess potential climate change effects.
- Provide additional context for GHG emissions, including through the use of the best available social cost of GHG (SC-GHG) estimates, to translate climate impacts into the more accessible metric of dollars; allow decision-makers and the public to make comparisons; help evaluate the significance of an action’s climate change effects; and better understand the tradeoffs associated with an action and its alternatives.
- Discuss methods to appropriately analyze reasonably foreseeable direct, indirect, and cumulative GHG emissions.
- Consider reasonable alternatives and mitigation measures, as well as addressing short- and long-term climate change effects.
- Use the best available information and science when assessing the potential future state of the affected environment in NEPA analyses and provide up-to-date examples of existing sources of scientific information.
- Use the information developed during the NEPA review to consider reasonable alternatives that would make the actions and affected communities more resilient to the effects of a changing climate.
- Consider unique situations for agencies analyzing biogenic carbon dioxide sources and carbon stocks associated with land and resource management actions under NEPA.
- Implement the “rule of reason” inherent in NEPA and the CEQ regulations to guide agencies in determining, based on their expertise and experience, how to consider an environmental effect and prepare an analysis based on the available information.
- Incorporate environmental justice considerations into their analyses of climate-related effects, consistent with Executive Orders 12898 and 14008.
What’s Different from Previous GHG Guidance and What It Means to Current and Future NEPA Documents
NEPA analyses require more in-depth evaluation of impacts under the new guidance. Instead of evaluating GHG emissions in the near term (construction, annual operational emissions, etc.), the analytical standard will now also include the life cycle GHG emissions for a proposed project, including reasonably foreseeable direct, indirect and cumulative emissions over the life cycle. Projects that will result in net reductions in GHGs may use less rigorous estimations.
GHG emissions should be presented both in terms of net emissions (the difference in emissions from the proposed action as compared to the baseline) and gross emissions (the total emissions associated with the proposed action). Where possible, these should be quantified but may also be compared to similar scenarios for which emission estimates already exist. At a minimum, a description of the anticipated changes over the life cycle and impacts should be addressed in the analysis text for those actions for which quantification is beyond the rule of reason under NEPA.
The guidance also includes evaluating the no action alternative for GHG emissions to provide context for proposed action alternatives. The addition of the social cost of carbon to the analysis is aided by references that include computed tables of costs that can be used. The social cost of carbon is the estimated monetary cost of damages associated with an incremental increase in GHG emissions (rise in temperature, sea level, infrastructure damage, agricultural loss and human health effects). When putting GHG emissions in context that the reading public can readily understand, agencies can provide comparisons of a project’s GHG emissions to more familiar metrics, such as household emissions per year or gallons of gasoline burned by vehicles driving on roads.
The evaluation of climate change impacts on a proposed action should also include an evaluation of whether the emissions – as compared to international, federal, agency, state and local climate action goals and/or commitments – will enhance or delay meeting the goals/commitments. A robust analysis should detail how agencies could avoid and/or mitigate GHG emissions resulting from a proposed action to the greatest extent possible.
The analysis of impacts to vulnerable populations is an important effort to address the inconsistencies of climate change impacts. The CEQ recommends that agencies use experts and resources from the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council to identify approaches to avoid or minimize adverse effects on minority and low-income communities. Implementation of environmental justice considerations should begin early in the scoping and planning processes.
This guidance is for agencies to use when reviewing new proposed actions under NEPA, effective upon publication in the Federal Register, which was January 9, 2023. Agencies will use their own judgement when deciding whether or not to use this guidance for actions that are already in the process of being reviewed. If using this guidance will help with making decisions about alternatives or responding to public comments, agencies should consider using it for actions that are in the early stages of review. CEQ does not expect agencies to go back and use this guidance for actions that have already been reviewed and have a final decision.
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