It's Hard to Know How Much Agencies Are Spending on Environmental Impact Analyses

The report on a law that has long been resisted by the business community was requested by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., (pictured) and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass. The report on a law that has long been resisted by the business community was requested by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., (pictured) and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass. Don Ryan/AP file photo

The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, which introduced the country to the “environmental impact statement,” has been enforced by multiple agencies with little data on the costs of analyzing its effects, according to a roundup by the Government Accountability Office.

“Agencies do not routinely track the cost of completing NEPA analyses, and there is no governmentwide mechanism to do so,” GAO wrote in a report published Tuesday on the landmark law that guides the permitting process for roads, bridges and smaller development.

“According to agency officials, information on the benefits of completing NEPA analyses is largely qualitative,” auditors wrote, noting that assessing the benefits of federal environmental requirements “is difficult because the monetization of environmental benefits often requires making subjective decisions on key assumptions.”

The chief benefit of analyzing NEPA actions is public transparency and participation in decisions, agencies note.

The report on a law that has long been resisted by the business community was requested by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

The dearth of governmentwide information on costs and benefits of analyzing NEPA was confirmed by officials from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency and others.

The Energy Department tracks limited cost data associated with NEPA analyses, GAO noted, using payments to contractors that conduct NEPA analyses. The median cost for analyzing an environmental impact statement -- the most exhaustive and least common option among NEPA requirements-- was $1.4 million from fiscal 2003-2012.

By far the most common NEPA requirement, a categorical exclusion, accounts for 95 percent of agency actions under the law, but its costs are not tracked, the report found, though they are clearly less than that for an environmental impact statement.

The Defense, Interior and Transportation departments do not centrally collect information on NEPA analyses, allowing component agencies to collect the information, the report found, whereas Energy and the Forest Service within the Agriculture Department aggregate certain data.

That data includes NEPA-related litigation, in which the federal government usually prevails, GAO noted—for example, in 2012, the government won 24 of 28 cases in U.S. Appeals courts. “Although the number of NEPA lawsuits is relatively small when compared with the total number of NEPA analyses, one lawsuit can affect numerous federal decisions or actions in several states” and have a far-reaching impact, the report said.

“Complicating the determination of costs and benefits,” GAO wrote, “agency activities under NEPA are hard to separate from other required environmental analyses under federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act; executive orders; agency guidance; and state and local laws.”

Though auditors made no recommendations, agencies generally agreed with the report’s observations.

An example of the private-sector’s attitudes toward NEPA emerged last September at a Senate hearing discussing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Energy Institute President and CEO Karen Harbert said, “Federal and state environmental statutes such as NEPA, state siting and permitting rules, and a 'build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything' -- BANANA -- mentality, routinely are used to block the construction and expansion of everything from transmission lines to power plants to pipelines.”

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