National Environmental Policy Act 1969 (NEPA 1969)

By Chris Moloney, Colorado State University, CO

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed by the United States Congress in 1969 and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on January 1, 1970.  NEPA remains one of the most influential, comprehensive and wide-ranging environmental policies enacted within the United States.  NEPA not only altered how Federal agencies make decisions regarding the environment, but it also established for the first time an overarching environmental policy vision for the entire country.  NEPA incorporates both practical and visionary components within a relatively straightforward legislative framework.  The implementation of NEPA has helped reduce the likelihood of environmental exploitation and degradation stemming from Federal practices, such as the construction of new buildings, airports, military bases or highways, and has ensured an open dialogue regarding potentially harmful environmental decisions that might previously have been concealed from public view.

NEPA’s creation by Congress at the end of 1969 was no accident.  In fact, NEPA can be seen as the product of over a decade of changing American attitudes towards the natural environment.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Garret Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) increased awareness of environmental problems linked to the actions of human beings.  Likewise, environmental disasters caused by human actions, including the burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River and oil spills in the ocean off the Santa Barbara, CA coast in 1969 highlighted the dire state—and spurred public concern for greater protection—of the natural environment in the United States.

However, NEPA differed significantly from past Federal environmental policies, such as the Clean Water Act (1960), Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965), and Clean Air Act (1967).  Each of those policies was limited in scope and intent, seeking to protect, or regulate conduct, with regard to only one specific aspect of the natural environment.  NEPA’s goal was much larger, and included implementing national environmental values that would create a stronger, healthier relationship between people, the government and the natural environment within the U.S.

NEPA seeks to achieve greater environmental stewardship nationwide by: 1) requiring Federal agencies—for example the Department of the Interior—to consider the environmental impacts of any planned activities prior to carrying out those activities; 2) requiring that any planned Federal actions with potential environmental impacts be opened to public comment and review; and 3) establishing a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to oversee implementation and adherence to NEPA.  Importantly, the CEQ reports directly to the President of the United States on environmental issues.

The practical, compliance components of NEPA are most easily understood as a process of review and analysis.  Federal agencies seeking to undertake certain actions must prepare documents and assessments regarding their planned activities; these materials are then reviewed by the CEQ.  Depending on the nature of the proposed project one of three decisions may be applied.  A Categorical Exclusion (CE) from compliance with NEPA is issued only if the planned activities pose no foreseeable environmental impact; categorical exclusions are rare.  Environmental Assessments (EA) must be conducted if planned activities appear to pose environmental impacts, regardless of degree.  Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) are required when environmental impacts from planned activities are expected and/or if the particular agency is mandated to perform an EIS by agency regulations.  Environmental Impact Statements often follow from Environmental Assessments.  Environmental Impact Statements require that public comments be solicited and heard; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) then reviews submitted Environmental Impact Statements.  The EIS review process may take more than a year to complete.

In the decades since NEPA’s enactment various supporters and critics of the policy have emerged.  Proponents of NEPA cite the EIS requirement as an invaluable tool for combating careless federal development projects and note that the CEQ has helped strengthen U.S. environmental policy by initiating important amendments to existing environmental policies.  Critics of NEPA believe the EIS is an easily manipulated protocol lacking regulatory power.  Moreover, critics of NEPA argue that court decisions regarding the EIS process have weakened the original scope and intent of NEPA.

Regardless of whether one is supportive or critical of NEPA, individuals and groups from both camps acknowledge that NEPA has significantly altered the course of U.S. environmental policy and decision-making.  NEPA was, and remains, one of the most significant environmental policies ever created within the United States.

See Also:  Rachel Carson; Endangered Species Act, Environmental Protection Agency

Further Reading

Lindstrom, Matthew J. Smith, Zachary A. The National Environmental Policy Act.  Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2001.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).” (Accessed March 2012).

Reference: National Environmental Policy Act 1969

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