Study of Environmental Impact Statements Reveals Varying Treatment of Climate Change Impacts

By Patrick Woolsey, CCCL Intern

Federal agencies have begun to incorporate consideration of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions into the environmental impact statements (EISs) which they are required to produce under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). However, agencies have developed widely varying procedures for addressing the topic, as demonstrated in a new report prepared by the Center for Climate Change Law (CCCL). The report analyzes a database compiled by CCCL of 227 EISs that substantively address climate change-related impacts, covering the period from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2011. While most federal agencies now address climate change to some extent in the EISs they prepare, the specific impacts considered and the methodology used in analysis vary greatly among agencies.

The report identifies several major categories of environmental impacts related to climate change, and examines the extent to which these categories are discussed in EISs prepared by various federal agencies. These categories for analysis of climate change impacts are based on those proposed by CCCL Director Michael Gerrard in a 2008 article. The impact categories examined include the following:

  • Direct operational impacts: This category includes smokestack greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, heating emissions from buildings, emissions from mining and drilling processes, and emissions resulting from impacts on carbon sinks such as forests, soils, and agricultural lands.
  • Purchased electricity: This category includes greenhouse gases emitted in generating the electricity that is produced off-site and purchased by the facility.
  • Induced trips: This category encompasses vehicle and transit emissions from any trips resulting from project construction and operation, the transport of freight to and from the project.
  • Construction impacts: This category covers emissions from extracting and fabricating the construction materials, and from the equipment used at the construction site.
  • Impact of climate change on the project: This category includes the effects of rising sea levels and water tables, increased flooding, extreme weather events, greater temperature variations, water shortages, and activities needed to adapt to climate changes. 

The Center for Climate Change Law has previously released a matrix which summarizes overall patterns in EIS preparation by various federal agencies. The new report includes analysis of the impact scope and methodology used in EIS preparation by ten federal agencies. The report highlights the following three questions:

  • Do agencies quantify greenhouse gas emissions using project-specific calculations, or simply describe them in qualitative terms?
  • When do agencies include a complete life-cycle analysis of direct and indirect emissions?
  • How often and to what extent do agencies consider the cumulative impacts of climate change on a project?

The report finds that agencies differ in the methods used to calculate emissions and assess their significance, the types of indirect impacts addressed, and the extent to which the impacts of climate change on the project are included. While some agencies exhaustively calculate emissions using specific figures, others provide general estimates or conclude that emissions are not significant. In EISs where they are applicable, some impact categories are considered much more frequently than others.  Full life-cycle analysis of emissions is rare, and while some agencies include indirect impacts such as purchased electricity and induced trips, many others do not. Although greenhouse gas emissions from projects are frequently addressed in EISs, the effects of climate change on the proposed projects are considered far less often. While many EISs emphasize scientific uncertainty about the scope and nature of future climate impacts, some provide projections of specific long-term climate impacts.

The report also reveals that the extent to which EISs address climate change is closely tied to the identity of the preparing agency, the project type, and the state in which the project is located. Some federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Energy, and the Bureau of Land Management routinely produce EISs which analyze climate impacts in substantial detail. Other agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, frequently give climate impacts minimal consideration. EISs prepared in states such as California and Washington which have robust state environmental review laws are likely to include more extensive analysis of climate change.

The report is available here.

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