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Vital Environmental Law Comes One Step Closer to Aligning Energy Policy With Climate Science

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Vital Environmental Law Comes One Step Closer to Aligning Energy Policy With Climate Science

By David Turnbull

The White House released an important document Tuesday—the final version of guidance for considering climate impacts within the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. While this document is, by the government's own admission, merely guidance and "not a rule or regulation," the updated version marks some important shifts in aligning our energy policy with our climate goals.

Climate Test

In particular, the guidance is improved from previous versions in three notable ways.

First, the new version forcefully states that there is no minimum threshold for considering the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a project to be considered significant.

The guidance now says (pages 9/10):

"This guidance does not establish any particular quantity of GHG emissions as "significantly" affecting the quality of the human environment or give greater consideration to the effects of GHG emissions and climate change over other effects on the human environment."

It then goes on to say on page 11 in new language:

"Agencies should not limit themselves to calculating a proposed action's emissions as a percentage of sector, nationwide, or global emissions in deciding whether or to what extent to consider climate change impacts under NEPA."

In addition, the guidance also says, as in previous versions (page 11):

"…a statement that emissions from a proposed Federal action represent only a small fraction of global emissions is essentially a statement about the nature of the climate change challenge, and is not an appropriate basis for deciding whether or to what extent to consider climate change impacts under NEPA."

In many fossil fuel infrastructure fights, proponents of building more fossil fuel infrastructure often point to small percentages of global emissions in order to minimize the perceived impact of their pet project. Now, thankfully, the White House is saying what we've said all along—we have to start somewhere in reducing emissions and ending our reliance on fossil fuels. No single cigarette gives you cancer, but if you say that each time you light one up you'll never quit.

Second, new language in the NEPA guidance importantly helps to clarify what emissions the government should look at when considering a given project.

New language on page 14 says:

"NEPA reviews for proposed resource extraction and development projects typically include the reasonably foreseeable effects of various phases in the process, such as clearing land for the project, building access roads, extraction, transport, refining, processing, using the resource, disassembly, disposal and reclamation."

This sentence is long, but it could be shortened pretty easily. It says that full lifecycle GHG emissions—including "using the resource"—should be considered. This is important, as emissions from the operation of a pipeline alone are never the full story. When considering a new piece of fossil fuel infrastructure, it's critical that we look at the full picture. We've written more about this here and in particular the need to understand the global market conditions as they relate to fossil fuel supply and demand.

Third and finally, some new language has been added towards the end of the the NEPA guidance document that is directly linked to our calls for a Climate Test.

This new language on pages 28/29 says:

"Agencies should discuss relevant approved federal, regional, state, tribal, or local plans, policies, or laws for GHG emission reductions or climate adaptation to make clear whether a proposed project's GHG emissions are consistent with such plans or laws. For example, the Bureau of Land Management has discussed how agency actions in California, especially joint projects with the State, may or may not facilitate California reaching its emission reduction goals under the State's Assembly Bill 32 (Global Warming Solutions Act). This approach helps frame the policy context for the agency decision based on its NEPA review."

This is an important addition to this guidance and moves closer to our calls for a Climate Test. What these sentences are saying is that we need to align our energy decision-making with our existing climate "plans, policies or laws." We wholeheartedly agree.

Our government decision-makers must consider our plans agreed to in Paris to limit global warming to far below 2 C, aiming towards 1.5 C, as they weigh the emissions associated with different energy projects. Put simply, we need to plan for success in achieving our climate goals.

What this new guidance does not do, however, is require the Energy Information Administration (EIA) to plot out the fossil fuel supply and demand implications of our climate goals. We've called for the EIA to plot out such a scenario on numerous occassions; it's a critical piece to help "plan for success" in meeting our climate objectives and informing our energy decision-making.

While a new Climate Test policy that has more force and specificity than this NEPA guidance is required, the finalized climate guidance released by the White House marks an important step towards this goal.

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