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Policy Statement 562 - National Environmental Policy Act

 
Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee On October 19, 2020
Approved by the Public Policy Committee on December 9, 2020
Adopted by the Board of Direction on January 16, 2021

Policy 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) encourages the planning, development, retrofitting, operations, and decommissioning of safe, resilient, and sustainable infrastructure. Additionally, ASCE supports forward-thinking environmental regulations that protect the environment from damage for current and future generations.  More specifically, ASCE supports:

  • the primary purpose and goals of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) based on the best available science;
  • reducing delays in the permitting process for infrastructure projects, helping our nation achieve infrastructure appropriate for the 21st century;
  • implementing permitting reforms including: 
    • use of a single NEPA document when possible,
    • designation of a lead agency for environmental reviews, and
    • creation of a publicly accessible dashboard to publish the status of NEPA reviews
  • changes to the rules and procedures that govern the implementation of NEPA that uphold the stated purpose and goals of the Law; and
  • a balanced approach to the NEPA process that streamlines the permitting and approval process for infrastructure projects but not at the expense of a science-based evaluation and determination of impacts to the environment.  

Issue 

Beginning in the 1950s and through the 1960s, Congress reacted to increasing public concern regarding the impact human activity could have on the environment. A key legislative option to address these concerns was through a national environmental policy.  Advocates of this approach argued that without a specific policy, federal agencies were not able or inclined to consider the environmental impacts their action would have. On January 1, 1970 President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law. The primary purpose and goal of NEPA as established by Congress is to "encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; [and] to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation."    

Multiple court cases have surrounded NEPA, its interpretation, and application almost since its inception. These court cases answered questions of procedure (how, when, and why a NEPA document must be prepared) and how environmental policy goals in NEPA should be implemented or enforced. Courts ultimately decided that NEPA is a procedural statute that requires agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their proposed action and inform the public that the federal agencies considered environmental concerns in their decision-making process. The way NEPA has been implemented make it an umbrella statute, or a framework to coordinate or demonstrate compliance with studies, reviews, or consultations required by other laws.

Responding to complaints that NEPA documents take too long to write and review, delaying or permanently cancelling important infrastructure projects, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) finalized an overhaul of NEPA in July 2020. These changes include mandating specific timelines for NEPA document review and page limits for NEPA documents.  

Rationale

ASCE recognizes civil engineers are charged with informing, educating, and engaging the public about proposed policies, plans, designs, projects, and programs which require timely and appropriate public involvement. Furthermore, ASCE recognizes that while regulatory streamlining procedures for infrastructure development is needed, these streamlined procedures should not increase the possibility of detrimental impacts to the environment. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act and the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 included several NEPA reforms. Designating one lead agency to develop joint schedules, a single NEPA document, a joint record of decision for multi-agency projects when practicable, and developing procedures to reduce delays or disputes, can eliminate duplication of work and promote collaboration between agencies. Additionally, the federal government should continue to work with states to eliminate duplicative reviews, while the Council on Environmental Quality should examine how other environmental rating tools can be used to complement the NEPA process.

ASCE recognizes mandated, abbreviated, NEPA document completion timeframes can result in environmental evaluations that may not identify all potential impacts, both positive and negative, and might also result in an inability to allow in-depth public involvement for the development of draft documents, as well as an inability to thoroughly engage with agencies, the public, and tribes. The potential to not identify all impacts might lead to litigation resulting in extreme project delays and bringing other projects to premature termination. While mandating maximum NEPA document lengths is important to developing succinct and high-quality NEPA documents that, as stated in NEPA, "concentrate on the issues that are truly significant to the action in question" it is more important to ensure that documents contain sufficient information to meet all applicable requirements and address the potential impacts of a proposed action, resulting in clear, concise, and focused NEPA documents, and that they are readable and understandable for the general public and most importantly to the people being directly impacted by the proposed action.  Through clear, concise, focused, and understandable NEPA documents there will be less time needed for decision-makers to review them and also result in NEPA documents that allow the public to quickly find the information they need. 

ASCE Policy Statement 562
First Approved 2021


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