Evidence-Based Recommendations for Improving the National Environmental Policy Act

Apr 10, 2022 | LPP Blog

We look forward to presenting the results of our research at the Climate Change Symposium hosted by the Sabin Center for Climate Change and the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law.  The event is on April 14, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. EST.  You can register here.

Our article, Evidence-Based Recommendations for Improving National Environmental Policy Act Implementation, took a deep dive into the past sixteen years of Forest Service decisions subject to NEPA.  Although there are a myriad of proposals to improve NEPA efficiency,  little information exists about how NEPA actually operates.  Governmentwide data on the number and type of most NEPA analyses are not readily available.  The data that is available focuses solely Environmental Impact Statements, which constitute less than 1% of all decisions subject to NEPA.  In other words, policy reform proposals are shooting blind.  Without knowing how NEPA operates, how can we be sure that proposed reforms will make it more efficient?

To help advance effective NEPA reform, we studied over 41,000 NEPA decisions completed by the U.S. Forest Service between 2004 and 2020. Using this database, we conducted a multivariate statistical analysis of the length of time required to complete the NEPA process at each level of review. We then investigated factors associated with longer decisionmaking times. Our model accounts for interactions between 3 levels of NEPA analysis, 43 activities involved in these decisions, 9 geographic regions, and the year of project initiation. Contrary to widely held assumptions, we found that a less rigorous level of analysis often fails to deliver faster decisions. Delays, we found, are often caused by factors only tangentially related to the Act, like inadequate agency budgets, a lack of experienced staff, delays receiving information from permit applicants, and compliance with other laws. Improving NEPA efficacy, we argue, should therefore focus on improving agency capacity. This approach, we believe, would best improve the NEPA process and advance NEPA’s mandate to engage with key stakeholders and carefully consider environmental impacts before making decisions.