An aerial view of a highway, cutting through a green landscape.

National Environmental Policy Act

The Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act (NEPA) is a foun­da­tion­al envi­ron­men­tal statute that requires that fed­er­al agen­cies con­duct envi­ron­men­tal reviews pri­or to under­tak­ing major fed­er­al actions – such as con­struct­ing a high­way – that sig­nif­i­cant­ly affect the envi­ron­ment. NEPA reviews pro­vide the pub­lic the oppor­tu­ni­ty to offer mean­ing­ful input on pro­posed fed­er­al ini­tia­tives, and often require that the rel­e­vant agen­cies adopt mea­sures to mit­i­gate the impact of projects on com­mu­ni­ties, wildlife and nat­ur­al resources.

NEPA Imple­men­ta­tion

Under NEPA, the Coun­cil on Envi­ron­men­tal Qual­i­ty (CEQ) is tasked with coor­di­nat­ing NEPA reviews across fed­er­al agen­cies to ensure that a con­sis­tent reg­u­la­to­ry approach is used in con­duct­ing the envi­ron­men­tal reviews.

2017-2021

  • June 2018

    The Trump admin­is­tra­tion char­ac­ter­ized NEPA as a reg­u­la­to­ry bur­den that slows eco­nom­ic growth and con­struc­tion of infra­struc­ture projects. In June 2018, CEQ released an advanced notice of pro­posed rule­mak­ing (ANPR) to announce its con­sid­er­a­tion of a plan to update” and mod­ern­ize” imple­men­ta­tion of NEPA.

  • August 2018

    In August 2018, a coali­tion of 10 attor­neys gen­er­al sub­mit­ted com­ments on the ANPR. The com­ments urged restraint in con­sid­er­ing changes to how NEPA is imple­ment­ed, and ques­tioned the neces­si­ty of a far-reach­ing reeval­u­a­tion of CEQ’s reg­u­la­tions. The attor­neys gen­er­al also expressed con­cern that NEPA revi­sions may lim­it the public’s abil­i­ty to par­tic­i­pate in future envi­ron­men­tal reviews, and threat­en the health of states’ res­i­dents and the integri­ty of local ecosystems.

  • Jan­u­ary 2020

    In Jan­u­ary 2020, the CEQ released a pro­pos­al that would sig­nif­i­cant­ly weak­en NEPA, nar­row­ing the scope and appli­ca­tion of the law and under­min­ing its plain lan­guage and pur­pose. The pro­pos­al would cur­tail require­ments under NEPA that fed­er­al agen­cies review and assess the impact of their actions on the envi­ron­ment. The pro­pos­al would also dra­mat­i­cal­ly lim­it pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion, roll back the require­ment that an agency eval­u­ate rea­son­able alter­na­tives, and under­mine gov­ern­ment account­abil­i­ty by dic­tat­ing how and when the courts can process and decide NEPA cases.

  • March 2020

    In March 2020, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son, New York Attor­ney Gen­er­al Leti­tia James, Dis­trict of Colum­bia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Karl Racine, and Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra led a coali­tion of 20 attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing com­ments oppos­ing the pro­pos­al. In their let­ter, the coali­tion details how the pro­pos­al would upend the abil­i­ty of fed­er­al agen­cies to com­pre­hen­sive­ly eval­u­ate the impacts of their actions on the envi­ron­ment and pub­lic health. The attor­neys gen­er­al high­light how these changes cre­ate sig­nif­i­cant uncer­tain­ty regard­ing the NEPA process and leave states with the respon­si­bil­i­ty to fill the gaps left by inad­e­quate NEPA reviews. The coali­tion notes that the pro­pos­al pro­vides no com­pre­hen­sive data or analy­sis to sup­port the roll­backs, and urges the CEQ to with­draw it.

  • July 2020

    In July 2020, ignor­ing the con­cerns of the attor­neys gen­er­al, CEQ pub­lished the final ver­sion of its update to NEPA imple­men­ta­tion reg­u­la­tions. The rule upends the long­stand­ing require­ment that fed­er­al agen­cies com­pre­hen­sive­ly eval­u­ate the impacts of their actions on the envi­ron­ment and pub­lic health. Addi­tion­al­ly, the rule nar­rows the range of projects to be reviewed under NEPA, leav­ing states with the respon­si­bil­i­ty to fill the gaps left by inad­e­quate NEPA reviews. Imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the release of the final rule, Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son and Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra released state­ments vow­ing to chal­lenge the final rule.

  • August 2020

    In August 2020, the attor­neys gen­er­al of Wash­ing­ton and Cal­i­for­nia fol­lowed through on their July 2020 com­mit­ment by fil­ing a law­suit, along with 20 oth­er attor­neys gen­er­al, chal­leng­ing the final rule in a Cal­i­for­nia fed­er­al dis­trict court. The law­suit notes that the rule vio­lates NEPA’s text and pur­pose by aban­don­ing informed deci­sion mak­ing about and pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion around under­tak­ing major fed­er­al actions and jet­ti­sons envi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health pro­tec­tion. The rule is also unlaw­ful because CEQ failed to review the rule’s sig­nif­i­cant envi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health impacts as required by NEPA itself. Addi­tion­al­ly, the attor­neys gen­er­al point out that the rule con­tra­venes the Admin­is­tra­tive Pro­ce­dure Act (APA) in that CEQ declined to pro­vide a ratio­nal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for its sig­nif­i­cant weak­en­ing of NEPA’s imple­ment­ing reg­u­la­tions. The law­suit requests that the court vacate the July 2020 rule.

  • Sep­tem­ber 2020

    In Sep­tem­ber 2020, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra and Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son led the coali­tion in fil­ing a notice of intent to sue CEQ for vio­lat­ing the Endan­gered Species Act (ESA) in issu­ing the July 2020 rule. The notice of intent to sue will allow the coali­tion to amend its August 2020 com­plaint against CEQ to include ESA-based caus­es of action. The notice of intent to sue points out that CEQ failed to con­sult, as required under the ESA, with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice and Nation­al Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice on the July 2020 rule’s like­ly impact on fed­er­al­ly list­ed endan­gered and threat­ened species.

  • Novem­ber 2020

    In Novem­ber 2020, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Becer­ra and Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al Fer­gu­son fol­lowed through on the notice of intent to sue. The coali­tion filed an amend­ed com­plaint to their August 2020 law­suit chal­leng­ing CEQ’s July 2020 update to the NEPA imple­men­ta­tion reg­u­la­tions. The amend­ed com­plaint notes that the July 2020 update con­clud­ed with­out any basis or expla­na­tion” that the broad update would have no effect” on threat­ened and endan­gered species and their pro­tect­ed habi­tat in an attempt to duck the low thresh­old for trig­ger­ing the ESA’s con­sul­ta­tion requirement. 

  • June 2021

    As of June 2021, the case was stayed.

For­est Ser­vice Rollbacks

2017-2021

  • June 2019

    In June 2019, the U.S. For­est Ser­vice issued a pro­pos­al revis­ing reg­u­la­tions imple­ment­ing NEPA that would dra­mat­i­cal­ly scale back envi­ron­men­tal impact analy­sis and pub­lic input require­ments for many actions under­tak­en by the agency. The pro­pos­al arbi­trar­i­ly exempts For­est Ser­vice actions from NEPA review, reduces pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties by elim­i­nat­ing scop­ing require­ments for the vast major­i­ty of For­est Ser­vice actions,” and allows the For­est Ser­vice to make pre­sump­tions about the impact of projects on the human environment.

  • August 2019

    In August 2019, Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al Xavier Becer­ra led a coali­tion of five attor­neys gen­er­al in fil­ing com­ments object­ing to the pro­posed rule, not­ing that the For­est Ser­vice framed the pro­pos­al as part of an effort to address the ris­ing threat of increas­ing­ly intense wild­fires, yet failed to con­sid­er or account for a pri­ma­ry cause of the increased inten­si­ty of wild­fires – cli­mate change.”

    The com­ments also not­ed that the pro­pos­al would enable the For­est Ser­vice to under­take actions with poten­tial­ly sig­nif­i­cant impacts under the pre­sump­tion that envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis is unnec­es­sary,” while elim­i­nat­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty for the pub­lic to con­test such a pre­sump­tion. The pro­pos­al also would elim­i­nate the pres­ence of sen­si­tive species” — those for which pop­u­la­tion via­bil­i­ty is a con­cern” as deter­mined by the For­est Ser­vice — from the list of extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances bar­ring the use of cat­e­gor­i­cal exclusions.

  • Novem­ber 2020

    In Novem­ber 2020, the For­est Ser­vice pub­lished the final rule revis­ing its reg­u­la­tions for imple­ment­ing NEPA, rolling back require­ments for For­est Ser­vice envi­ron­men­tal reviews.

Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion Regulations

2017-2021

  • Novem­ber 2020

    In Novem­ber 2020, the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion (DOT) Depart­ment issued a pro­pos­al to roll back its NEPA pro­ce­dures. The pro­posed roll­back mir­rored the CEQ’s July 2020 final rule that elim­i­nat­ed sev­er­al key NEPA oblig­a­tions — includ­ing the require­ment to ana­lyze cli­mate-relat­ed and oth­er cumu­la­tive” and indi­rect” envi­ron­men­tal effects.

  • Decem­ber 2020

    In Decem­ber 2020, a coali­tion of 17 attor­neys gen­er­al led by New York Attor­ney Gen­er­al James sub­mit­ted com­ments in oppo­si­tion to the pro­posed rule and urged DOT to with­draw it. The coali­tion not­ed that the pro­pos­al adopts many of the sig­nif­i­cant flaws of the CEQ’s July 2020 final rule, as well as intro­duces oth­er sig­nif­i­cant changes to DOT’s inter­nal pro­ce­dures that pri­or­i­tize expe­di­ence over rea­soned deci­sion mak­ing and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. The attor­neys gen­er­al also high­light­ed that the pro­posed changes sub­stan­tial­ly under­mine NEPA’s direc­tion and pur­pose, are inap­pro­pri­ate while the July 2020 rule faces mul­ti­ple chal­lenges in fed­er­al courts, and fur­ther mar­gin­al­ize envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice communities.

Cli­mate Change Guidance

2017-2021

The CEQ also pro­posed weak­en­ing its guid­ance issued to assist fed­er­al agen­cies in con­sid­er­ing the effects of green­house gas emis­sions and cli­mate change under NEPA. State attor­neys gen­er­al filed com­ments in oppo­si­tion to the CEQ’s cli­mate change guid­ance. More infor­ma­tion is avail­able on the NEPA Guid­ance web­page.