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The National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA

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What is NEPA?

Here’s the big one – the U.S. law that outlines how we protect our environment – all of it!  While the ESA is specific to listed species of plants and animals, and the MMPA focuses solely on marine mammals, NEPA (the first major environmental law in the U.S. and one of the best acronyms that makes its own word – neepah!) covers everything.

NEPA makes sure that all branches of the federal government consider the environmental impacts of any major action – like building a highway or a dam, permitting oil drilling, or Naval training and testing operations – and promotes efforts to prevent damage to our environment and the habitats around us.  The process is designed to be transparent and driven by the public.

NEPA recognizes that each and every person has a responsibility to preserve and enhance our shared environment as trustees for succeeding generations. 

The Process

What many fondly (or not) refer to as “the NEPA process” has multiple steps for considering and analyzing the environmental impacts of any project involving federal funding, permits, or work by a federal agency.  The public is involved at every step, and can suggest alternatives, provide scientific information, ask for improvements, or just share general thoughts and comments.  Agencies are required to respond to any reasonable input – so if you make a good point or suggest something they hadn’t looked at, they’ll consider it, but they might delete that SpongeBob meme, as funny or relevant as it may be.

Environmental Impact Statement or the EIS

Part of the NEPA process is developing draft and final Environmental Impact Statements (DEIS and EIS, respectively).  These documents, which can often be thousands of pages in length (thank our lucky flukes for the “search” function), analyze the project in question and provide several alternatives to that action, and assess the environmental impacts of each alternative.  The DEIS is developed first, after an initial public input period on what should be included and analyzed, and suggestions for alternatives.  A final EIS provides detail on what was analyzed, and how, and selects the “preferred alternative” – what the action will ultimately be.

It’s like a large-scale version of deciding what to have for dinner.  Your “activity” is eating dinner, and you’ll analyze several options and the impact to yourself and your immediate environment – the time and effort of cooking a full meal, making a quick quesadilla, getting takeout, ordering from PostMates, or just not eating.  Each alternative has a different impact on you and your kitchen, and it’s your job on a daily basis to weigh those impacts and make a decision – your preferred alternative.  Now image announcing each stage of your decision-making process and incorporating public comment…. No wonder policy takes a while!

Our policy team spends a lot of time reading through these documents since, as they say, the devil is in the details.  For instance, in one DEIS we found that the risk of vessel strikes to right whales was dismissed because, according to the DEIS, right whales would get out of the way of passing vessels.  Oh no you didn’t think you were going to let that get by us!  Our thorough and scientifically based comments demonstrated the risk of vessel strikes to right whales. As a result, the final EIS included measures to look for right whales and slow down if one was seen. Go team policy!


NEPA often gets the blame for the lengthy time that policy decisions can take, and we whole-heartedly agree that it can be a frustrating process.  At-risk species or habitats often don’t have time to wait for this process to play out, and sometimes quick decisions are needed to help endangered whales, even on a temporary basis.  But we strongly support the core principles of NEPA: transparency and public participation, including scientific input, environmental protection, analyzing a range of alternatives, and the opportunity for legal review.  The delay in policy usually comes from a lack of federal funding or overly-complex projects trying to get an extensive review done in one fell swoop instead of taking things one step at a time.  Despite its occasional frustrations, NEPA set the framework for many similar laws in other countries and in individual states, and is a public-driven process.  Every step of the way is open to input, and the end results are available and disclosed to the public.  Truly Power to the people!