Administration Proposes Major Overhaul of NEPA Regulations; NACWA Member Input Requested

(January 15, 2020) – The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) proposed a set of sweeping changes last week to the rules governing how environmental reviews of proposed federal actions are conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  According to CEQ, the proposal is intended to facilitate more timely and efficient NEPA reviews as well as promote critical infrastructure development.

NEPA reviews are required for major infrastructure projects that use federal funding or require federal permits.  These changes could impact NEPA reviews of NACWA member projects, particularly those that are funded in whole or part with federal dollars.

The proposed changes, which would mark the first major updates to CEQ’s NEPA regulations since their promulgation in 1978, comprehensively revise the NEPA process, establish presumptive time limits for the completion of environmental reviews, and promote earlier interagency and Tribal coordination during permitting actions. 

The proposal would also place potentially significant limits on the scope of NEPA’s application.  For example, the proposal would exclude privately financed projects with minimal federal funding or involvement – which could include projects such as mines and pipelines – from the definition of “major Federal actions” subject to NEPA’s requirements. 

The proposal would likewise preclude agencies from considering environmental effects that they cannot prevent or that are “remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain” as part of their NEPA analyses, and expressly states that cumulative effects do not have to be considered.  Such provisions could severely restrict the extent to which climate change and resiliency impacts are considered during permitting for projects such as major highways and bridges.   

Comments on the proposal are due March 10.  NACWA is currently reviewing the proposal and requests member input on whether the proposed changes have the potential to impact member operations.  NACWA is particularly interested in any member utility thoughts on the potential impacts of limiting climate change and resiliency considerations in project review, not only for utility projects but for other projects built in a utility’s service area that could impact collection and/or stormwater systems. Please provide any feedback to Nathan Gardner-Andrews, NACWA’s General Counsel & Chief Advocacy Officer.