Is Streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act Possible?

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex…It takes a touch of genius–and a lot of courage–to move in the opposite direction.” Albert Einstein

Project proponents often express frustration at the resources, cost, and time required to complete the National Environmental Policy Act. The problem is that their NEPA projects tend to be over budget, beyond the project schedule, and require more resources than originally allocated. The resulting delays and increased costs are lengthening the time to get products to market.

NEPA documents, especially environmental impact statements (EISs), have recently become more complex, complicated, and substantially lengthier. NEPA regulations (40 CFR Section 1502.7) direct that “the text of final environmental impact statements—shall normally be less than 150 pages and for proposals of unusual scope or complexity shall normally be less than 300 pages.” However, a random sample of 10 recent EIS documents from the EPA EIS Database averaged 660 pages.

In addition, the Council on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ’s) Forty Most Asked Questions Concerning CEQ’s NEPA Regulations advises that “even large complex energy projects would require only about 12 months for the completion of the entire EIS process.” This guidance was updated on March 6, 2012 through a memorandum for heads of federal departments and agencies from CEQ, which states, “there will be a range of appropriate lengths of EISs. Nevertheless, agencies should keep EISs as concise as possible…and no longer than necessary to comply with NEPA and the other legal and regulatory requirements being addressed in the EIS…length should vary with the number, complexity, and significance of potential environmental problems.”

In response, we’ve listed below a variety of lessons learned to streamline the National Environmental Act Policy process and thus reduce the size of EISs:

  • Prepare a detailed outline of the EIS document
  • Clearly define the purpose and need statement
  • Stop scope creep
  • Design and implement a process to evaluate requirement changes
  • Assign an agency project manager capable of leading complex projects
  • Use a third-party project management assistance contractor

Prepare a detailed outline of the EIS document. At the kickoff meeting, present a detailed annotated outline. The client and their leadership can review, revise, and approve the outline. During the approval process, forge an agreement with leadership to minimize changes to the outline and format of the EIS, then make a determined and conscious effort to stick to it. When agency staff and stakeholders suggest changes to the outline and format, leverage the agreement and let them know that these items are not for discussion and revision.

Clearly define the purpose and need statement. The purpose and need statement in the EIS is critical to controlling the scope of the analysis. A clearly defined purpose and need statement increases efficiencies by focusing the analysis. During scoping, include a draft purpose and need statement to focus public comments. After scoping, revisit and revise the draft purpose and need statement based on public input. When developing alternatives, compare the action alternatives against the purpose and need statement to ensure that they are reasonable. If the action alternatives do not respond to the purpose and need for the action, the alternatives are not reasonable and should be eliminated from analysis. A broadly written purpose and need statement will lead to a broader range of alternatives. A clearly defined purpose and need statement focuses the range of alternatives and the required analysis while improving the efficiency of the process.

Stop scope creep. EISs are complex enough without trying to respond to moving targets and scope changes. Changing requirements translates to increased complexity, increased cost and schedule delays. Before starting the environmental planning project, develop a clear project scope, requirements, and desired outcomes. These should be reviewed and vetted by upper management, the project team, and stakeholders. Once the scope and requirements are approved, these groups make commitments to adhere to them.

Design and implement a process to evaluate requirement changes. At the beginning of the project, identify how to review and address requirement changes. This process will avoid additional delays and confusion when change requests occur. The process should include a method to identify changes, evaluate their cost and benefit, and a procedure to efficiently implement approved changes.

Assign an agency project manager capable of leading complex projects. NEPA projects (especially EISs) are complex projects because they involve a variety of stakeholders with conflicting viewpoints, can be influenced and disrupted by a diverse set of internal and external variables, and consist of independent tasks that require integration. The agency project manager should have proven prior experience leading complex projects, should be decisive and willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions, and should be able to rely on agency leadership to support these decisions.

Use a third-party project management assistance contractor. Logan Simpson helps agency staff with project management by removing some of the administrative burden. Logan Simpson’s staff consists of experienced NEPA planners—people who can provide hands-on assistance with the NEPA process so agency staff can concentrate on developing defensible NEPA documents in a timely fashion. Logan Simpson functions as an extension of agency project management staff.

These and other lessons learned can create a more focused, more streamlined NEPA process when it comes to effective and efficient environmental planning.