A New Study Says Climate Change Gets Varied Treatment in Impact Statements

Across a range of topics, agencies are considering climate change factors. But their considerations differ in degree and quality.

Just across our inbox recently: this new study from Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.  The study by Wentz and colleagues surveyed federal environmental impact statements (EISs) from 2012-2014 and found that the depth and breadth of agencies’ attention to climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation differed significantly.  Perhaps more significantly, the study is accompanied by an Excel DB also posted to their site.

The survey turned up 238 total EISs and coded each for ten separate topics within the broader heading of climate change:

For Mitigation:

direct operational emissions, emissions from construction, induced trips, purchased electricity, and other, and comparison of emissions from alternatives.

For Adaptation:

impact of climate change on the proposed action and on affected water resources.

They also tracked consideration of energy and water efficiency.

This survey will be useful along a number of fronts, especially given the Council on Environmental Quality’s late efforts to guide federal agencies on the consideration of climate change in NEPA.  One interesting note in light of the Paris Agreement at the end of 2015: out of 19 EISs found for fossil fuel development projects, only 3 ventured any sort of quantification of the “lifecycle” emissions involved.  Another interesting note on that score: only 44% of the EISs found (112) compared the expected emissions between the alternatives being considered.

Expect a fuller post on Wentz et al.’s  results from the Lab when time permits. For now, we should observe that the lead takeaway is how variable EISs have remained in raising climate change considerations and how practically impossible it’s been to measure whether or how those considerations have factored into the ensuing decision(s). Finally, cribbing a bit from the executive summary (at ii):

Federal agencies generally do account for climate change when conducting environmental reviews of projects that will generate GHG emissions or be affected by climate-related phenomena such as sea level rise. Of the 238 federal EISs reviewed in this survey, 214 (90%) contained some discussion of GHG emissions or climate change impacts. Notably, considerations related to climate change mitigation and adaptation were addressed in roughly the same number of EISs: 172 (72%) discussed GHG emissions associated with the proposed action, and 167 (70%) discussed how climate change may affect the proposed action and/or the surrounding environment. In contrast, only 91 EISs (38%) discussed energy efficiency, and only 31 (13%) discussed water efficiency.

Furthermore, the CEQ draft guidance from as far back as 2010 had an effect, albeit a hard-to-quantify effect, on the EISs found.

Agencies frequently cited CEQ’s 2010 draft guidance on climate change and NEPA as well as various Executive Orders and agency policies on climate change when discussing these topics. This suggests that the draft guidance and policy documents have prompted a more thorough disclosure of climate change considerations in EISs. However, the scope and depth of the analysis varied substantially—for example, some EISs contained a detailed inventory of GHG emissions, some provided an aggregate estimate of total emissions, and others merely noted that GHG emissions may occur as a result of the project (without quantifying these emissions or identifying specific sources). This variation was partially due to differences in the nature and location of the proposed actions for which these EISs were prepared. But in some instances, there were discrepancies in how climate change considerations were addressed even in EISs that were prepared by the same agency for similar projects.

Id. at ii.



I teach environmental, natural resources, and administrative law at Penn State Law. Before teaching I was an enforcement lawyer at U.S. EPA. Along the way I've done work for environmental nonprofits and written a fair bit about NEPA.
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