New NEPA Guidance on Considering Climate Change

This sounds like it could have an impact of USFS and BLM NEPA analyses for timber harvesting and other forest management projects. The new guidance is explained in the Federal Register. Legal firm Perkins Coie has an analysis here.

ClimateWire (subscription):

How NEPA guidance could favor climate projects over ecosystems

A White House document would emphasize carbon reductions when permitting large projects. That could have unintended consequences on forests, wetlands and species.


The White House interim greenhouse gas guidance could amplify climate considerations in a way that overshadows other environmental benefits, like preserving forests and wetlands.

The draft document, which directs agencies on how to treat climate change when reviewing projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, could show that things like solar arrays and transmission lines are more beneficial than protecting trees or marshes because of their potential for large-scale carbon reductions.

That’s because the guidance includes for the first time a monetary test to measure the costs and benefits of a project. And it’s weighted toward lowering emissions, due in part to the Biden administration’s soaring damage estimates from carbon dioxide.

The NEPA guidance, released earlier this month, stressed that agencies must consider indirect and cumulative greenhouse gas emissions associated with a proposed project, not only on-site emissions. Add that to an updated social cost metric, and the premium associated with avoiding greenhouse gases could be astronomical.

In contrast to the previous NEPA guidance on greenhouse gases finalized in 2016, it gives agencies very little wiggle room to claim that a project’s aggregate contribution to climate change can’t be estimated. In the “rare instance” that tools and methodologies aren’t available to allow a permitting agency to quantify all the direct, indirect and cumulative greenhouse gas consequences, the guidance states, the agency should offer a range of values instead.

Once the greenhouse gases are known, it states, monetizing them using the social cost figures should be a “simple and straightforward calculation.”

That prompts some experts to wonder whether this step toward cost-benefit analysis as a feature of NEPA review might cause other priorities like forest preservation, waterways or biodiversity to suffer by comparison — and perhaps to be sacrificed for projects that promise large climate gains.

3 thoughts on “New NEPA Guidance on Considering Climate Change”

  1. A couple of random thoughts on this..
    1. Most of the wind turbine and solar array and transmission line territory I see is not forest. Just an observation, don’t know why that is.
    2. In my experience “consider indirect and cumulative greenhouse gas emissions associated with a proposed project, not only on-site emissions. Add that to an updated social cost metric, and the premium associated with avoiding greenhouse gases could be astronomical.” This will require a great deal of analysis.. plus the social cost metric is just a bunch of random assumptions blessed by the powers that be.
    “monetizing them using the social cost figures should be a “simple and straightforward calculation.”” albeit somewhat meaningless in the real world.
    3. Decision makers don’t have to pick the least expensive option..
    4. What about Tribes who don’t want the project? How does co-management balance against calculations of the social cost of carbon?

    Does anyone think more calculations will inform these trade-offs (species, co-management) in any meaningful way? It’s just distancing decision makers further from making the hard choices that will need to be made and litigated. IMHO.

  2. This is just about providing more information to the decision-making process. Some might say that more information about effects that comes out of the NEPA process won’t make much of a difference to the decision. If so, then the ClimateWire fear seems unfounded. Especially because it seems to make an assumption that ecosystems would otherwise be favored over proposed energy developments. (Really?)

    In addition, the guidance encourages (“where relevant”) agencies to identify the alternative with the lowest net GHG emissions or the greatest net climate benefits. This reminds me of the 1982 Forest Service planning regulations that required identification of the alternative forest plan that came closest so maximizing “present net value,” and the one that best responds to the Resources Planning Act national objectives. I don’t think these were ever big factors in which alternative was actually chosen.

    The guidance expressly disapproves of NEPA reviews stating merely that a project’s GHG emissions would represent only a small fraction of global or domestic emissions, which is said to be a common approach taken by agencies. Still, you have to assume that there is is a threshold at which the fraction is too small to be meaningful to consider for a particular project. They don’t seem to say anything about this, but they do recommend that, “agencies leverage early planning processes to integrate GHG emissions and climate change considerations…” A place where forest plans might help.

  3. As to Sharon’s comment on her observation of no wind or solar on USFS lands, that is correct. The USFS during the Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations has not put a focus on development of renewable energy on USFS lands. That is despite the fact that the DOE NREL mapped significant renewable energy resources on USFS lands in the Bush administration. During the Bush administration, the USFS refused the invitation of BLM and DOE to participate in the wind planning exercise that resulted in the 2005 Wind PEIS plan amendments. It took the USFS until 2011 to come up with wind directives that were roundly panned by wind industry as unworkable and to date have not resulted in a single project. (The only wind project on USFS lands is in the Green Mountains and predates the directive.) In the Obama administration, I represented a wind company that was designated by then and now USDA Secretary Vilsack as an Administration-wide high priority/Dashboard RE project. That designation resulted in a really quick screening denial by the Forest Supervisor. The lack of interest by the USFS in the actual development of renewable energy through several administrations is well-illustrated by the USFS 2011 “Strategic Energy Framework.” Lots of good words but little action and no results on the ground. Puzzling.


Leave a Comment