All U.S. Government Agencies Must Now Consider Climate Change in Decision-Making

August 8, 2016

On August 2, 2016, the White House Council on Environmental Quality released its final guidance for Federal agencies on how to consider the impacts of their actions on climate change in their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews. The guidance is the result of a six-year process exploring how to factor climate change into Federal decision-making. It requires Federal agencies to incorporate climate change considerations into NEPA reviews and provides a common approach for agencies to assess the climate-related impacts of their actions.

Under NEPA, Federal agencies are required to consider and disclose the potential effects of their actions and decisions on the environment. For the most significant actions, agencies must prepare an “Environmental Impact Statement” detailing the consequences of the project and how negative impacts could be avoided or mitigated through alternative approaches. The new guidance will ask agencies to incorporate climate change into these reviews and assessments. Specifically, the guidance directs agencies to:

  • Consider both the immediate and the longer-term effects of their decisions on climate change
  • Attempt to quantify the climate impacts of their decisions, including by providing useful approximations of direct and indirect emissions
  • Assess not only how their actions may contribute to climate change but also how climate change impacts, such as sea rise or drought, might affect a proposed project
  • Consider alternative approaches that could help to better prepare the U.S. for a warming climate

With respect to quantification, the guidance recommends that agencies quantify a proposed action’s projected direct and indirect GHG emissions and steers agencies towards established tools and processes to do so. Direct emissions would involve calculating how many carbon dioxide emissions a new project, permit or other agency action would cause, as well as how much carbon it could sequester. Indirect emissions refer to the emissions that may not immediately result from the project but would be a reasonably foreseeable result down the line. For instance, where the Federal action is a Federal lease sale of coal, direct emissions would be those associated with the extraction of coal while indirect emissions might be the eventual combustion of that coal to power businesses or heat homes.

This guidance marks yet another climate-forward policy in President Obama’s legacy and could act as a model for other jurisdictions, including Canada.