Incorporating Climate Change in NEPA Reviews: Recommendations for Reform

By Michael Burger, Romany M. Webb, and Jessica Wentz

The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) requires federal agencies to conduct an environmental review prior to moving ahead with any major federal project, plan, or program that could significantly affect the environment. As part of the environmental review, agencies must share information with, and solicit feedback from, the public. The goal is to improve federal decision-making by ensuring that agencies take a hard look at the environmental effects of their actions and fully inform the public about those effects.

In guidance issued in 2016, the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”)—the federal body charged with implementing NEPA—identified climate change as a relevant factor to be considered in NEPA reviews. Multiple federal courts have confirmed that, under NEPA, federal agencies must consider both proposed actions’ contributions to climate change (i.e., via greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions) and the effects of climate change on proposed actions and their environmental outcomes. Despite this, however, federal agencies have been slow to integrate climate change considerations into their NEPA reviews.

In October 2021, CEQ announced that it would undertake a two-phase review of NEPA’s implementing regulations and consider amendments to, among other things, “ensure that the NEPA process . . . meets environmental, climate change, and environmental justice objectives.” Phase 1 of the review was completed in April 2022, when CEQ finalized limited amendments to undo certain regulatory changes made by the Trump administration. CEQ is now embarking on Phase 2, which will involve more extensive regulatory revisions, aimed at ensuring “the NEPA process provides for efficient and effective environmental reviews that are guided by science and are consistent with the statute’s text and purpose” and promote improved federal decision-making to advance “climate change mitigation and resilience” goals. This report recommends seven key regulatory reforms that would further those aims.

Read the report, Incorporating Climate Change in NEPA Reviews: Recommendations for Reform, in Columbia Law School's Scholarship Archive.