Climate guidance is not necessarily requirement, CEQ chief testifies

Final climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions guidance that the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued to federal agencies is not necessarily a requirement, CEQ Managing Director Christy Goldfuss told the US House Natural Resources Committee. But several Republican members warned that it is in danger of being interpreted as such.

“The guidance fits in [the National Environmental Policy Act’s] regulatory framework, which requires agencies to look at the consequences of their actions,” Goldfuss said during the committee’s Sept. 21 hearing on the final guidance which CEQ issued last month (OGJ Online, Aug. 3, 2016). “It says that when it comes to climate change, it recommends using the tools that are available. If those tools are not, the agencies are advised to note this.”

CEQ has taken pains to explain that the guidance is not a requirement because it has no enforcement authority, she told the committee. “We urge agencies to look at the reasonably foreseeable impacts of the decisions they are making. That is what NEPA requires,” Goldfuss said.

But committee chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said that Wildearth Guardians could cite the guidance when its Aug. 25 lawsuit to keep the US Department of the Interior and the US Bureau of Land Management from issuing oil and gas leases on onshore federal land comes to trial in US District Court for the District of Columbia.

“If a court uses your voluntary guidance as something an agency should do, doesn’t it become a de facto responsibility? This is a dangerous and difficult area,” Bishop said.

Goldfuss emphasized that the climate impact guidance has limitations. It specifically does not require that carbon emissions’ social costs be addressed, that specific economic impacts be considered, that determinations include life cycle analysis, or that agencies conduct additional analyses, she said.

“Today, taking into account climate change in environmental impact assessment processes has become a standard practice that has been adopted by federal agencies, state agencies, international bodies, and public and private organizations around the world,” she said.

“The final CEQ guidance is built on this record of experience to help ensure that NEPA analysis provides the public and federal agencies with a clear picture of how many types of federal actions can [affect] climate change issues and identify opportunities to build climate resilience,” Goldfuss said.

Improving climate impact resilience is essential, she said. The White House Office of Management and Budget, in its fiscal 2017 budget request, noted that the nation has spent $257 billion already on climate change’s direct costs, Goldfuss said. “It makes sense to consider these pieces of information when designing a bridge, highway, or other infrastructure project. We recommend, where it’s appropriate, for agencies to consider how these projects will be affected by a changed environment,” she said.

“As someone who worked in an agency, I can tell you that nothing delays things more than uncertainty,” Goldfuss said. “This guidance allows agencies to move beyond the debate and do analysis. It encourages them to use the tools that are available, and when the tools aren’t available, to move on.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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