Last week, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released a draft guidance describing how and when climate change considerations should factor into the environmental impact assessments that federal agencies prepare under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The draft guidance is important for anyone proposing to build infrastructure, such as power plants, pipelines and large industrial facilities, since it will influence whether and under what conditions federal agencies issue permits and other approvals. Most federal approvals for large projects are subject to NEPA, which requires impact assessments as an aid to federal decision-making.

The proposed guidance recommends that federal agencies consider climate change if the proposed action (such as a federal permit, land-use or loan guarantee) would lead to the release of at least 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases. “Significant” effects on the environment must be avoided or mitigated before an agency will approve a project. But the guidance intentionally does not define any standard – quantitative or qualitative – by which to measure the significance of a climate impact for purposes of NEPA.

The energy sector is singled out for attention in the draft guidance. It highlights the importance of comparing the proposed action against alternatives on the basis of expected climate-change effects. In doing so, agencies are invited to consider not just federal but also state and local goals for energy conservation and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, especially as associated with energy production. Furthermore, the proposed action is to be assessed against a “no action” alternative that is based on a projection of the reasonably foreseeable future condition of the affected environment subject to climate change.

The draft guidance is not effective until it is finalized. In the interim, CEQ has requested public comments on the proposal. For a more detailed examination of the guidance document, click here.