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Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1969 and has gone on to be one of our country’s most important environmental laws. The law creates a framework and process by which federal agencies must consider the impacts of their actions on the environment – including natural resources, human health, infrastructure, and land use. Since climate change is one of the most important environmental issues to emerge in the past few decades, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future, it is clear that NEPA has an important role to play in how agencies consider the effects of climate change both on their investments, and also on the resources that their projects affect. It is increasingly critical for agencies to thoughtfully and thoroughly consider climate change, from both an emissions and adaptation standpoint, as part of NEPA analysis, particularly in the most detailed and through decision documents, Environmental Impact Statements.

In order to facilitate agencies’ consideration of climate change, the administration released Draft NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2010. The Draft Guidance clearly indicated that relevant climate information includes both greenhouse gas emissions information, and also climate change impacts and adaptation. To date, however, most of the attention paid to the guidance has been from the point of view of emissions analysis.

To get a better understanding of whether and how well agencies were incorporating the adaptation recommendations, we analyzed 154 Final Environmental Impact Statements released between July 2011 and April 2012. To our dismay, we found that very few incorporated the climate adaptation elements of the 2010 draft guidance. Even the best-performing EISs tended to incorporate climate change into a limited number of the elements of the affected environment, failed to make a full comparison between the various alternatives, or used short and qualitative statements rather than full analysis based on the best available science. We explore the possible reasons for this and present recommendations for overcoming these obstacles in our new report Reasonably Foreseeable Futures

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands.  Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. These ecosystems are severely threatened by climate change, and climate-smart management will be key to their survival.

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Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, NEPA, Public Lands, Smart from the Start, Uncategorized0 Comments

West Front of the Capitol. Photo Credit- Architect of the Capitol.

Secure Capital for Renewable Energy is Good for Wildlife and the Economy

The Obama administration has done a commendable job jumpstarting renewable energy development and is well on its way to achieving the president’s goal of providing enough renewable energy to power three million homes.  Although the administration’s efforts to boost the renewable energy sector have been successful to date, there is little doubt that concern for continuing access to capital –the result of the potential loss of the production tax credit and grant programs, the impact of cheap natural gas, and the failure to agree on a national energy policy that would spur investment in clean energy development — is undercutting the administration’s successful effort to move the clean energy economy forward. This uncertainty – especially for financing and a growing market for clean energy – will continue to thwart the growth of this energy sector.

Congress could address these concerns by extending tax credits (which could be paid for by redirecting current oil and gas production subsidies) and by passing legislation to establish a national goal for renewable energy production or by finally putting a tax on carbon pollution. These solutions would help spur private-sector investment in clean energy and reduce the industry’s dependence on federal subsidies.  The result would be good for economic growth, stimulate employment, and reduce the federal deficit (by reducing federal outlays and generating increased tax revenue over the long term).

Instead, Congress has chosen to do none of the above — leaving the market uncertain while complaining that the Obama administration has no energy policy.  At the same time, anti-environmental members of Congress choose to argue that regulations designed to protect human health and natural resources are thwarting efforts to promote clean energy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To the contrary, the conservation community has worked in partnership with the solar and wind energy industries to frame policies to guide solar development on public lands and promote responsibly wind energy projects.   With encouragement from the industry and conservation groups, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is poised to finalize a first-of-its-kind plan for responsible solar energy development on public lands, which should help solar energy projects move forward more efficiently by reducing risk to wildlife and natural and cultural resources.

In addition, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued guidelines for wind energy development that were based on the recommendations of a scientific panel (established, in fact, by the Bush administration) and fully-supported by the wind energy industry association and leading conservation organizations. This is ground-breaking progress for the energy sector that has never been seen before and a reflection of a common understanding of the need to develop cleaner, more environmentally-responsible and secure sources of energy.

But to keep the clean energy boom from going bust, our nation’s leaders need to act quickly to shore-up the nascent industry. Congress can start by creating demand for renewable energy, following the lead of some 33 states – most notably California, which has set the highest target aiming to generate 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 – and setting a national renewable energy standard. Although such legislation is currently pending, its prospects for passage are not good, to no one’s surprise.   Congress must also make financing for renewable energy development – solar, wind and geothermal projects – more secure as President Obama has called for time and again. The uncertainty of our nation’s commitment to clean energy discourages investment from the private sector. The oil and gas industry receives billions of dollars worth of incentives each year. For the clean energy industry to take flight, Congress must at least make a commitment to renewables on par with fossil fuels.

Last, but certainly not least, the Obama administration must put in place a national program for siting and permitting responsible clean energy projects. As mentioned earlier, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed solar-energy program stands as an example of “smart from the start” clean energy policy. It was developed with input from conservation organizations, industry representatives, clean energy advocates, utilities, and investors. The program aims to accelerate solar energy development by guiding projects to low-conflict areas that are least likely to impact imperiled wildlife and sensitive lands. This approach reduces risk for investors and provides developers with greater certainty that their projects can move forward and conservationists with greater confidence that risk to wildlife and the environment will be minimized.

If the clean energy sector goes bust, it cannot be blamed on the Obama administration, the solar and wind energy industries, or conservation groups. The blame will fall squarely on Congress, which chooses instead to complain about the lack of a national energy policy, while blocking any effort to help advance our clean energy future and pointing a finger at others for their failure to lead.

Posted in Renewables, Smart from the Start0 Comments

oil and gas drilling

The push to “un-reform” oil and gas leasing reform

After taking office the Obama administration took common sense steps to reverse the Bush administration’s unbalanced approach to developing oil and gas on our public lands.  The administration rightly recognized that a “drill baby drill” policy posed a significant threat to wildlife, water, wild places and western values, and was leading to more and more conflict over every lease.  In an effort to reduce the conflict in the leasing process and balance out resource considerations, the Department of Interior provided a number of reforms through Instruction Memoranda.  Reforms from these memos require the Bureau of Land Management to do things like:

  • Standardize oil and gas lease stipulations that protect wildlife and other resources by setting a baseline of protections that have to be incorporated into any drilling project
  • Incorporate new adaptive management features that allow adjustments to be made as more information is gained on how drilling is impacting the natural environment
  • Establish local “Master Leasing Plans” throughout the west to facilitate thorough environmental review of potential drilling impacts BEFORE offering leases in areas with high energy potential and high risk of environmental conflicts
  • Get rid of policies that previously reduced the amount of environmental review required for oil and gas leasing

BLM’s fact sheet on the reforms is here and a chart comparing the old and the new is here.

These reforms were an important step in streamlining and modernizing the process by fully taking into account all resources affected by leasing and by pushing leases into lower conflict areas.  However, as is the case with many of the common sense policy changes initiated on our public lands, these reforms are under attack in this Congress.  Despite the fact that recent reports show onshore oil and gas drilling at a twenty year high even with these reforms in place, a bill introduced in the Senate would reverse the administration’s reform agenda along with a number of other important progressive actions taken by the Obama administration to improve oil and gas leasing.

In addition to the bill, a recent letter from Republican Senators attacked the BLMs leasing reforms.  In response to this letter, former head of the BLM Mike Dombeck said: “It is disappointing to see members of Congress, presumably at the request of industry, attempting to roll back such common sense policies on the land that belongs to ‘we the people.’”

A halt to the Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) currently under development, in particular, would be a huge loss.  These innovative plans provide a new and powerful opportunity to avoid and minimize wildlife and other environmental conflicts that could result from poorly planned oil and gas leasing before a project is sited and investments are made.  This type of “smart from the start” planning results in a win-win because it has the potential to resolve conflicts prior to the siting and development of oil and natural gas wells, thus avoiding costly controversies that always seems to end up in court.  A law that gets rid the MLP process would stop this good policy in its tracks.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands, Smart from the Start1 Comment


dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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