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Anatomy Of An Environmental Impact Statement--What Goes Into A Nepa Document?

Brad Grenham, National Environmental Policy Act (Nov 2017)

Are you ready to write, review, or otherwise work with an environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)?2 While it may appear daunting, the task is more manageable with an understanding of the purpose of NEPA, the key components of an EIS, and the guidelines for designing each component. An agency prepares an EIS to consider alternatives and environmental impacts in proposing major federal actions significantly affecting the environment. The challenge lies in the many judgment calls involved in designing each EIS component. We know the EIS needs alternatives, but how many alternatives? The EIS must consider cumulative effects, but how far must this analysis extend? The Environmental Assessment (EA), although more concise, requires similar analysis and judgment calls.3 This paper seeks to assist with the basics by describing the components of an EIS and providing some key regulatory and case law guidance on each component. I. THE PURPOSE OF AN EIS A. Informed Decisionmaking In developing each component of the EIS, the guiding principle is that the purpose of the document is "to insure a fully informed and well-considered decision."4 "NEPA's purpose is not to generate paperwork . . . but to foster excellent action" and "help public officials make decisions that are based on understanding of environmental consequences."5 The EIS "ensures that the agency . . . will have available, and will carefully consider, detailed information concerning significant environmental impacts" and "it guarantees that the relevant information will be made available to the larger audience."6 NEPA procedures "insure that environmental information is available to public officials and citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken."7 Publication of an EIS "serves a larger informational role," as it "provides a springboard for public comment."8 The "touchstone" is whether an EIS analysis "fosters informed decision-making and informed public participation."9 NEPA's "mandate to the agencies is essentially procedural."10 A "rule of reason" governs EIS contents based on the usefulness of potential information to the decision-making process.11