Addition of climate change impacts to environmental assessments a move in the right direction

Melting ice in the Arctic is one sign of global climate change.

Photo credit: UCAR

Today the Obama administration released new guidance that will ensure that climate impacts from individual projects on public lands are accounted for in environmental studies conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

By Joshua Mantell

NEPA was passed in 1969 as a way for the U.S. government to understand and document the environmental impacts of any project undertaken with federal funds or support, including any type of development on public lands, such as drilling, mining, logging and road building. As part of the review process, impacts to the land and wildlife are studied and presented publicly before development begins.

The anticipated impacts help land managers and land management agencies understand whether projects are worthwhile or whether they should be scrapped. But up until now, climate has not been a consideration.

Including foreseeable climate impacts in environmental assessments is an important step toward a more sustainable and comprehensive approach to public lands management. As TWS’ Chase Huntley discussed in a opinion piece published in The Hill last November, “By accounting for the consequences of the fossil energy we commit to developing, we can have science-based discussions about whether and why the climate consequences of specific projects and plans on public lands are acceptable.”

The new guidance requires climate impacts to be included in environmental assessments, but they need to influence how a project is reviewed and affect planning decisions for large landscapes. A logical next step would be for land management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to use this information to make decisions about which projects are approved.

We need to modernize our approach to public lands development, and this guidance is a good beginning that adds to the Obama Administration’s already significant climate change legacy.