New Rules: Simpler Environmental Impact Regulations

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently announced new rules that significantly update and modernize the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the first time in more than 40 years. The updated rules are documented in the “Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The changes reflected in it could have a big impact on agencies and businesses involved in the bridge development and maintenance industries.

The NEPA was originally signed into law in 1970. It requires federal agencies to assess the potential environmental impacts of proposed activities, including the construction of roads and bridges. The most recent significant updates to the law, prior to the current overhaul, date back to 1978. A few minor adjustments were made in the 1980s.

Prior to making the latest changes, the CEQ conducted a multi-year review of NEPA regulations, receiving more than one million comments through public hearings and other forms of outreach. What the CEQ learned is that the regulations had become too cumbersome for agencies and businesses seeking permits for bridges and other types of infrastructure projects.

The complexity of the regulations had increased over time because the CEQ published more than 30 guidance documents to help agencies and contractors understand and comply with the NEPA. In addition, U.S. presidents over the years issued many directives related to it. On top of this, Congress enacted a great deal of legislation that impacted it. This created a messy situation that needed to be cleaned up.

CEQ found that application reviews for highway-related projects take more than seven years on average. There were cases on the books where they lasted more than 10 years. In addition to the delays, the process significantly increased the costs of projects because of the long time frames and costly legal issues related to the approval process.

The CEQ has stated that its new rules will make it easier and more efficient to complete environmental reviews because they’ve simplified and clarified the regulatory requirements. The new document codifies Supreme Court and other case law, includes related legislation, reflects current technological capabilities and agency practices, eliminates obsolete provisions, and improves the format and readability of the regulations.

The key changes reflected in the final document include:

  • Putting in place time limits of two years for preparing environmental impact statements (EISs) and one year for environmental assessments (EAs). This is significantly less than today’s current realities.
  • Specifying limits for the number of pages in EISs and EAs. This will prevent them from becoming too complex and cumbersome to understand.
  • Requiring joint schedules, a single EIS, and one record of decision (ROD), as appropriate, for EISs that involve more than one federal agency.
  • Strengthening the role of the lead agency in the approval process.
  • Requiring senior agency officials to oversee NEPA compliance.
  • Requiring timely resolution of disputes to help prevent delays.
  • Allowing contractors to assume a greater role in preparing EISs, within limits.
  • Codifying relevant case law.
  • Providing greater efficiency based on new technology and processes. 
  • Outlining new provisions to assist Federal agencies in determining whether NEPA applies and the appropriate level of environmental review.
  • Limiting the timeframe and scope of environmental impacts. 
  • Directing agencies to provide advice on alternative solutions when issues arise.
  • Expanding public involvement in environmental reviews and improving coordination with local entities.
  • Reducing the need to provide duplicate information and documents.

In the end, the new document does not change existing environmental laws and regulations, it simply attempts to make it easier to navigate them. Based on how all this is carried out, it could make it possible for bridge contractors and agencies to get projects approved more efficiently and effectively. Stay tuned for more information.