National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): Overview

Overview of the National Environmental Policy Act

The basic doctrine of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the Federal Government to use all practicable means and measures to protect environmental values. It establishes policy, sets goals and provides means for carrying out the policy. NEPA encourages the wise use of natural resources by requiring the consideration of environmental factors in Federal agency decision-making. NEPA also lets the public, private organizations, State and local agencies, and Native American tribal governments be involved in and be informed about the decision-making process.

Many of the Federal environmental regulatory statutes of the 1970's sought to impose limits on pollution by private entities. In contrast, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was promulgated to redirect the decision making process of Federal agencies and require consideration of environmental impacts.  NEPA requires full disclosure about major actions taken by Federal agencies, including alternatives to the actions, impacts, and possible mitigation. NEPA also requires that environmental concerns and impacts be evaluated during planning and decision making. For any proposed Federal action, Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation prepare a NEPA compliance document to provide this full disclosure to the public.

Congressional Declaration of National Environmental  Policy

(a)   Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man's activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment, and recognizing further the critical importance of restoring and maintaining environmental quality, declares that it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government to use all practicable means in a manner calculated to promote the general welfare, create 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.

(b)   In order to carry out the policy set forth in this Act, it is the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable means, consistent with other essential considerations of national policy, to improve and coordinate Federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may : 

1. fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations;

2. assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings;

3. attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable consequences;

4. preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain an environment which supports diversity, and individual choice;

5. achieve a balance between population and resource use which will permit high standards of living and a wide sharing of life's amenities;

6. enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources.

(c)   The Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.

There are three types of NEPA documents

1. Categorical Exclusions (CEs)

A CE excludes certain categories of Federal actions from further NEPA documentation because these categories of actions have been determined in a public process to have no significant affect on the environment nor do they involve unresolved conflicts concerning alternative uses of available resources. There are 11 of these CEs for the Department of Interior and 30 CEs specific for Reclamation. Reclamation prepares a Categorical Exclusion Checklist (CEC.) to document if a proposed action meets the criteria for being categorically excluded from further NEPA documentation. An action may fall under a particular CE but may not meet the checklist criteria. Examples of actions that can qualify for a CE include:

  • Nondestructive data collection, inventory, study, research, monitoring.

  • Maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement of existing facilities which may involve a minor change in size, location and/or operation.

2. Environmental Assessments (EAs)

An EA is written for any Federal action to provide sufficient evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) or an environmental impact statement (EIS). An EA is written for all actions for which there is not an appropriate CE, or for actions that may fall under a CE but do not qualify under the checklist criteria. 

An EA is a concise document, usually under 30 pages, prepared with input from various disciplines and publics. A FONSI is a short document which briefly shows why the action described in the EA would not have a significant effect on the human environment.

3. Environmental Impact Statements (EISs)

An EIS is prepared on major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment. If an action does not fall under a CE or does not meet the criteria for a CE and/or a FONSI is not appropriate, then an EIS has to be prepared.

An interdisciplinary team prepares an EIS. Each EIS has a public involvement program which includes meetings and other ways to get public and agency input on alternatives to be evaluated, critical issues and possible impacts. The EIS is sent out for public review. There are also hearings to receive comments on the draft EIS. The Federal agency prepares a final EIS which includes responses to comments received on the draft EIS. Finally, the decision maker for the Federal agency prepares a Record of Decision which compares the alternatives being considered and explains why a particular alternative was chosen to be implemented.

Bureau Of Reclamation NEPA 

For detailed information & comments, please contact  Douglas Kleinsmith at (916) 978-5034