The Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest is a focal point in the ongoing debate about the proper parameters of environmental permitting.
Recent news articles (see here, here and here, for example) in the Pacific Northwest show that environmentalists and energy companies are ramping up their public arguments over whether the federal government needs to include possible climate change impacts as part of the environmental impact statement (EIS) for Clean Water Act Section 404 permits. In this case, Army Corps of Engineers permits are necessary to expand Pacific Northwest port facilities to facilitate American coal exports to Asian markets.
In February, this issue reached the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the ultimate authority on the National Environmental Policy Act. The CEQ deferred to the Corps, and the Corps seems to be taking the position that it only has the authority to look at the environmental impacts of the port expansion and other directly related activities, not the environmental impacts of the products that might move through the port.
Such a welcome lack of jurisdiction has saved many a grateful official from having to make a tough call. However, the issue is not going away, as the Governors of Washington State and Oregon publicly push the environmentalists’ concerns.
It is crucial to note that the policy issue has implications far beyond the fight over markets for western coal. If the second or even third order climate change consequences of a federal action become within the scope of an EIS, then a wide range of activities will be delayed and public benefits jeopardized.
For example, would federal oil and gas leases in North Dakota have to be evaluated not just for their impact on the local fauna and flora, but also for the impact of the carbon dioxide released when those hydrocarbons are burned?
Would adding new lanes on a federally funded overcrowded highways require that the Federal Highway Administration first evaluate additional carbon emissions from the vehicles that use that road and the reduction in carbon sequestration from the trees and shrubs removed to make room for the new lanes?
Would federal timber sales from national forests in Idaho need to consider not just any impact on fish spawning habitat from building logging roads, but also the foregone carbon dioxide uptake by the trees being removed?
Would the Bureau of Land Management’s wildland fire fuel reduction projects in southern California have to be evaluated for the extra carbon dioxide emissions?
Arguing that the ultimate and indirect greenhouse gas impacts of any federal action need to be considered during the NEPA process may be intellectually satisfying for some. But it is a recipe for lengthy federal bureaucratic delays that create economic stagnation, which poses its own socioeconomic and environmental impacts.
Scott Cameron Senior Advisor
A former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Interior Department, Scott has spent more than 34 years focusing on natural resource, energy, and environmental policy. Scott is also a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.