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New Study Finds Federal Agencies Must Improve Climate Impact Analyses to Meet NEPA Requirements

solar panels in dry landscape
Climate change poses major risks to energy infrastructure across the U.S. Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

A new study finds that federal agencies are not adequately considering climate change impacts in reviews conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The report, Evaluating Climate Risk in NEPA Reviews: Current Practices and Recommendations for Reform, was released today by Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and Environmental Defense Fund.

“Climate change poses major risks to energy infrastructure across the U.S. Federal agencies must consider those risks when conducting environmental reviews of energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, but that often does not happen,” said Romany Webb, associate research scholar at Columbia Law School and senior fellow at the Sabin Center. “Our research shows that many agencies are not thinking about how projects will be affected by climate change and what that means for the projects’ environmental outcomes. As a result, agencies may be underestimating the environmental impacts of energy projects and approving projects that are not resilient to climate change.”

“Climate change is a serious and growing danger. Rigorous climate impact analysis is necessary to protect all Americans, and to meet NEPA’s core goal of informing federal agencies and the public about the environmental effects of proposed actions,” said Michael Panfil, lead counsel and director of Climate Risk Strategies for Environmental Defense Fund.

The new report finds that in order to meet NEPA’s requirement that federal agencies take a “hard look” at the environmental effects of proposed actions, agencies must consider how the changing weather and environmental conditions brought by climate change might impact an action and alter its environmental effects. However, none of the 65 environmental impact statements that agencies issued in relation to onshore energy activities from 2016 through 2020 contained sufficiently holistic, specific, and actionable climate impact analysis to inform agency decision-making.

To bridge the gap between NEPA’s requirements and agencies’ current practices, the report recommends:

  • The Council on Environmental Quality should update its NEPA implementing regulations to explicitly require climate impact analysis and should identify best practices for this analysis in updates to its climate guidance.
  • Other federal agencies should update their own NEPA regulations and practices to ensure robust climate impact analysis.
  • The Council on Environmental Quality should coordinate across federal agencies and relevant experts and create or support creation of a database of climate impact information.

You can read the full report here and read the executive summary here.

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