This website is designed to provide information about the Federal Government's Executive Branch responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

A. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
B. NEPA Regulations
C. The NEPA Process
D. Categorical Exclusions
E. Environmental Assessment
F. Finding of No Significant Impact
G. Environmental Impact Statement
H. Record of Decision

A. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

Signed into law by President Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970, NEPA set forth a bold new vision for America.  Acknowledging the decades of environmental neglect that had significantly degraded the nation's landscape and damaged the human environment, the law was established to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.

Beneath the lofty rhetoric lay practical concerns.  NEPA did not advocate environmental preservation at all costs.  Rather, it sought to balance environmental concerns with the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.  State and local governments, concerned private and public organizations, and individuals encouraged Federal agencies to work in partnership; NEPA endeavored to reconcile the inherent tension between the rapidly changing world and its finite natural resources.

While NEPA affirmed each person's responsibility to preserve and enhance the environment, it emphasized the Federal Governments leading role in that effort.  Road improvements, construction, and park and forest management were just a few of the ongoing Federal activities with the potential to profoundly impact the Nations landscape.  Therefore, the heart of NEPA is helping Federal agencies act as responsible stewards of America's vast natural resources.

NEPA advanced an interdisciplinary approach to Federal project planning and decisionmaking through environmental impact assessment.  This approach requires Federal officials to consider environmental values alongside the technical and economic considerations that are inherent factors in Federal decision making.  Environmental impact assessment also calls for the evaluation of reasonable alternatives to a proposed Federal action; solicitation of input from organizations and individuals that could potentially be affected; and the unbiased presentation of direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental impacts.  This information is used by a Federal official before a decision is made. Doing so results in informed, and ultimately, improved Federal decision making.

NEPA also established a new entity within the Executive Office of the President to oversee NEPA implementation: The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

B. NEPA Regulations

CEQs regulations (40 C.F.R. Parts 1500-1508) set the standard for NEPA compliance.  They also require agencies to create their own NEPA implementing procedures.  These procedures must meet the CEQ standard while reflecting each agency's unique mandate and mission.  Consequently, NEPA procedures vary from agency to agency. Further procedural differences may derive from other statutory requirements and the extent to which Federal agencies use NEPA analyses to satisfy other review requirements.  These include environmental requirements under statutes like the Endangered Species Act and National Historic Preservation Act, Executive Orders on Environmental Justice, and other Federal, State, tribal, and local laws and regulations.

C. The NEPA Process

Each Federal agency has its own agency NEPA implementing procedures which adapt the framework established by the CEQ regulations to address agency specific missions and decisionmaking authority.   The NEPA process begins when an agency proposes to take an action (this can include proposals to adopt: rules and regulations; formal plans that direct future actions; program; and specific projects - see 40 C.F.R. § 1508.18).  Once the proposal is conceptualized and any reasonable alternatives have been developed, the agency must determine if the action has the potential to affect the quality of the human environment.  This process results in one of three levels of NEPA analysis.  Agencies may:

a.  apply a Categorical Exclusion;
b.  prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA); or
c.  prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

D. Categorical Exclusions

When agencies develop their NEPA procedures, they compile a list of agency-specific actions they have determined will normally have no significant individual or cumulative effect on the quality of the human environment.  Categorical Exclusions are based on previous experience with these categories of actions and their environmental impact.  Examples of some agency Categorical Exclusions include: revised administrative personnel procedures, minor facility renovations, or rehabilitation of hiking trails on public lands.

In all cases, agency NEPA procedures must consider the "extraordinary circumstances" which are set out in the agency NEPA implementing procedures, and can preclude the use of a Categorical Exclusion.  Extraordinary circumstances include potential effects to environmentally sensitive areas or resources, and public controversy over the environmental effects of the agency's proposed action.  If a review of the extraordinary circumstances disclose no potential environmental impacts, the agency may apply the Categorical Exclusion and proceed with their action.

If the proposed action is not on the agency's list of Categorical Exclusions, environmental impacts are disclosed during the review of extraordinary circumstances, or the agency is unsure whether significant impacts will occur, the agency can revise their proposal so it meets the standards for a Categorical Exclusion, or develop an EA or EIS.

E. Environmental Assessment (EA)

The purpose of an EA is to determine if a proposed action or its alternatives have potentially significant environmental effects.  Applicable Federal, State, and local agencies, applicants, and, to the extent practicable, the public all participate in EA preparation.  However, since agencies themselves determine the extent of public involvement, interested individuals should consult the agency to determine how the agency will engage the public.

An EA:

(1) provides evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an EIS;
(2) aids agency compliance with NEPA when no EIS is necessary; and
(3) facilitates preparation of an EIS when one is necessary.

Often, the EA will also identify ways the agency can modify their proposed action to minimize environmental effects.

The EA process concludes with either a Finding of No Significant Impact or a determination to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

F. Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI)

A FONSI details reasons why the agency has determined that the action will have no significant impacts.  If it is the first time that the agency has undertaken the proposed action or, if the action is of a kind that would typically require an Environmental Impact Statement under NEPA regulations, CEQ requires that the agency publish the FONSI for a 30-day review period, typically in the Federal Register.  If no review period is required, the agency will likely make the FONSI available by posting it on its website or in a local newspaper.

In some cases, agencies require publication of every EA they prepare at various points in the NEPA process.  These requirements are part of their agency NEPA implementing procedures.

G. Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)

The most rigorous level of NEPA compliance, an EIS has more regulatory requirements than an EA.  First, the agency files a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register, informing the public of the upcoming environmental analysis and describing how they can become involved in EIS preparation.

The Notice of Intent begins the scoping process, a period when the agency and the public collaborate to define the range of issues to be addressed in an EIS.  The agency identifies and encourages participation from interested parties, defines the role of involved agencies, and determines the environmental issues relevant to the EIS.  The agency also identifies any existing and required studies or analyses that can be used during EIS preparation.

While drafting the EIS, the agency prepares a Purpose and Need statement to describe the rationale for the proposed action.  This statement is the basis for creating alternative solutions.  Federal agencies must present reasonable alternatives in sufficient detail for readers to compare their environmental effects.

If an agency has a preferred alternative, it should be clearly identified in the EIS.  Agencies must also consider a no action alternative.  No action alternatives describe what would happen if the agency chooses not to pursue the action.

Once the agency has prepared a draft EIS, the document is published for public review and comment for a minimum of 45 days.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will publish a Notice of Availability, announcing the availability of the document, to the public.

Upon expiration of the draft public comment period, the agency considers all substantive comments, conducts further analysis if necessary, and prepares a final EIS.  The EPA then publishes a Notice of Availability in the Federal Register for the final EIS.  This Notice begins a minimum 30-day review period.  This review period must be completed before the agency makes a decision on the proposed action.

H. The Record of Decision (ROD)

The EIS process ends with the completion of a Record of Decision.  The ROD explains the agencys decision, describes the alternatives the agency considered (including the environmentally preferred alternative), and discusses plans for mitigating potential environmental effects and monitoring those commitments.  By continuing to monitor mitigation commitments, agencies implement NEPA requirements well after the environmental impact analysis is completed.