The NEPA Process
Published September 11, 2013
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) is the nation's broadest environmental law. NEPA applies to all federal agencies and most of the activities they manage, regulate, or fund that affect the environment. It requires all agencies to disclose and consider the environmental implications of their proposed actions. It provides the public an opportunity to review and comment on the proposed action and other alternatives being considered.
NEPA requires the preparation of environmental impact statements (EIS) to ensure that federal agencies accomplish the law's purposes. The President's Council on Environmental Quality has adopted regulations and other guidance that provide detailed procedures federal agencies must follow to implement NEPA. A fundamental first step to successful NEPA compliance is understanding the environmental review process established by the statute, the regulations, and relevant court decisions. The key to NEPA's success is the ability to integrate NEPA into federal agency decision-making.
The reach of NEPA is pervasive throughout the federal government. It applies to virtually any activity undertaken, funded, or permitted by a federal agency that affects the environment. For example, NEPA may apply to diverse federal actions and agencies, such as a new highway in Boston (Federal Highway Administration), the filling of wetlands for a housing development in Florida (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), timber sales on National Forest land in Alaska (U.S. Forest Service), and the sale of water for agricultural purposes in California (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation). In these and thousands of other federal decisions, agency officials and their staffs must have a working knowledge of NEPA's purposes and procedural requirements. NEPA's success also depends on informed participation by private organizations, public-interest groups, and citizens concerned about the environment. Citizen participation is an integral part of NEPA's procedural requirement: the better the public understands the environmental review process, the more effectively they can participate and help shape the outcome of the process.
NEPA requires EIS preparation for proposals for legislation and other major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment. A federal agency must, therefore, evaluate and screen each proposed action to determine what level of NEPA applies., During this step, the agency must determine whether the action is exempt from NEPA, categorically excluded or needs an EIS prepared. Second, if the action is not categorically excluded or exempt, the agency must determine whether the proposed action may significantly affect the quality of the human environment. This step generally involves preparing an Environmental Assessment (EA) to determine whether the proposed action would result in any significant environmental effects.
During the third phase of the NEPA process, the federal agency either prepares a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or an EIS. A FONSI is prepared if the agency determines that no significant effects would occur from the proposed action. An EIS is prepared if the agency determines that the proposed action may have significant effects on the human environment.
The EIS process consists of seven steps. First, the agency publishes a Notice of lntent (NOI) in the Federal Register. Shortly thereafter, the scoping process, a series of public meetings and a public comment period, begins. When all comments have been collected and analyzed, a Draft EIS is prepared from the information gathered. Resource agencies and the public have an opportunity to review and comment on the Draft EIS before it is made final. A Record of Decision (ROD), the decision-making instrument to an EIS, is signed and one of the proposed actions is carried out. For a Legislative Environmental Impact Statement (LEIS), such as the Goldwater Range Renewal LEIS, the Congressional legislation is the decision-making instrument thus no ROD is produced.