NEPA Overhaul Aims to Speed Up Environmental Reviews

Posted on 7/27/2020 by Roger Marks and Anthony Cardno, CHMM

Signed into law on January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires Federal agencies  of the US government to assess the environmental impact of their activities before issuing permits, adopting federal land management actions, or building highways or other publicly owned projects.  

The 1970 law created the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which wrote the first regulations to implement NEPA in 1978 (found in 40 CFR 1500--1508). 

What’s New in the Final Rule?

Each update in the NEPA Final Rule fits into one of three categories, more or less:
  • Restructuring rules that re-organize existing environmental regulations to be easier to read, with less repetition and improved grammar.
  • Changes to definitions that clarify the meaning of regulatory terms, add new definitions, and strike outdated ones
  • “Actual new stuff” that substantively changes or adds to facility’s environmental responsibilities under NEPA.
Read on for more insight about what’s in the Final Rule. Read more about NEPA on EPA’s website.

Restructuring Rules in NEPA

The 1978 NEPA regulations were dense, tangled, repetitive, endlessly self-referential, and, simply put, very hard to understand and apply.   

The new Final Rule re-organizes sections of the regulations to provide a more logical “flow,” group connected concepts together, and limit repetition. Plus (grammarians rejoice!) they changed occurrences of passive voice to active voice to make the regulations easier to read.

New and Updated NEPA Definitions  

A set of clear definitions is the backbone of every regulatory program. As EHS professionals know, words often take on different meanings depending on the set of regulations you’re looking at.

To prevent confusion, the meaning of words should be clear and consistent across the full set of rules.
The Final Rule adds and clarifies definitions found in 40 CFR 1508 for a list of terms, among them "Authorization," "Lead Agency." "Participating Agency,"  “Reasonably Foreseeable,” “Significantly,” and many others.  

New and Revised NEPA Requirements

This rule goes beyond regulatory housekeeping to include substantial changes and updates to the requirements for Federal agencies.   

The goal here is to shorten the amount of time it takes to complete legally required environmental reviews before a government project—like new highway construction, for example—can begin.

To that end, the Final Rule:

Sets page and time limits for required environmental reviews, including:
  • Environmental Assessments (EA)
  • Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)
  • Conditional exclusions; and
  • Findings of No Significant Impact
Streamlines the way different Federal agencies work with each other on single or related projects.

Adds standards by which “interested parties” like other Federal agencies, state and tribal governments, and private individuals and businesses can offer input during various environmental review processes.

Adds requirements for agencies that rely on third parties or contractors to write/perform environmental reviews like EAs, EISs, etc.  

For more details, read the Final Rule in full in the July 16 Federal Register

Before this month's Final Rule, the NEPA regulations had not changed since 1978. Still, NEPA kept the US legal system busy in the forty-plus years since it became law. The Supreme Court has issued seventeen decisions concerning the law in that time, and US district and appellate courts interpret NEPA more than one hundred times per year, according to the preamble to the Final Rule.  

Earlier efforts to modernize and simplify NEPA include presidential memoranda and extensive guidance.

Tags: environmental compliance, environmental review, NEPA, permits

Find a Post

Compliance Archives

Lion - Quotes

The instructor made the class enjoyable. He presented in a very knowledgeable, personable manner. Best class I've ever attended. Will take one again.

John Nekoloff

Environmental Compliance Manager

I have been to other training companies, but Lion’s material is much better and easier to understand.

Mark Abell

Regional Manager

The instructor did an excellent job presenting a very dry subject; keeping everyone interested and making it enjoyable.

Marc Bugg

Hazardous Waste Professional

The training was impressive. I am not a fan of online training but this was put together very well. I would recommend Lion to others.

Donnie James

Quality Manager

This course went above my expectations from the moment I walked in the door. The instructor led us through two days packed with useful compliance information.

Rachel Stewart

Environmental Manager

Lion's online training is more comprehensive, has better slides, and is a superior training experience than what I would get from other trainers.

Robert Brenner

District Environmental Manager

Excellent course. Very interactive. Explanations are great whether you get the questions wrong or right.

Gregory Thompson

Environmental, Health & Safety Regional Manager

The instructor created a great learning environment.

Avinash Thummadi

CAD & Environmental Manager

This was the 1st instructor that has made the topic actually enjoyable and easy to follow and understand. Far better than the "other" training providers our company has attended!

Lori Hardy

Process & Resource Administrator

I used the IT support number available and my issue was resolved within a few minutes. I don't see anything that could have made it better.

Danny Province

EHS Professional

Download Our Latest Whitepaper

Get to know the top 5 changes to OSHA’s revised GHS Hazard Communication Standard at 29 CFR 1910.1200 and how the updates impacts employee safety at your facility.

Latest Whitepaper

By submitting your phone number, you agree to receive recurring marketing and training text messages. Consent to receive text messages is not required for any purchases. Text STOP at any time to cancel. Message and data rates may apply. View our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.