New climate change guidelines make for better decision-making

New federal guidelines require agencies to consider climate change when evaluating proposals, providing a vital tool to inform and improve public decision-making. (© Robert Llewellyn)

Today the Obama Administration released guidelines on how federal agencies should consider climate change when assessing proposed projects.

The guidelines, which apply to all federal projects reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act, will impact decisions involving everything from transportation projects to power plants, pipelines, and oil drilling. Until now federal agencies have been inconsistent in how they considered climate change in project reviews, often ignoring it completely.

When reviewing any new project, the agencies must consider both the direct and indirect impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. For a proposed new highway, for example, federal agencies will need to consider the greenhouse gas impacts of building the highway, as well as the emissions that would result from additional sprawl or traffic. Perhaps most significantly in informing decision-making, agencies are now required to quantify and compare the climate changing effect of different alternatives, allowing the public an easy way to see which alternatives will have the least impact.

“This guidance will allow us to better tackle the challenges of climate change,” said Kym Hunter, attorney in SELC's Chapel Hill office. “But it also provides greater transparency and more information to help make decisions about where our limited federal dollars are spent. These guidelines give all taxpayers a better accounting of the impacts and costs of federal projects.”

SELC has commented on the adminstration's draft guidelines multiple times as they have been in development the past eight years, particularly asking for a greater focus on transportation. In the Southeast, transportation is now the leading contributor to climate change-causing pollution.

In addition to transportation, the guidelines have significant implications for coastal spending and development. The guidance specifically refers to transportation projects on coastal barrier islands, such as proposed bridges in the Outer Banks, and directs agencies to consider the consequences of rebuilding with sea level rise and more intense storms. It also discusses how chemical facilities near the coast could have increased risk of spills or leakages, putting local communities at risk.

While draft versions of the guidelines had set a greenhouse gas emissions threshold to trigger consideration—something SELC urged against—the final version removed that and now requires climate change analysis for all projects.

“We know Southeastern coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, so this is a huge step forward for better decision making in our region,” said Hunter. “Just asking the question of how each project will affect and be affected by climate change could lead to better decisions about transportation, coastal development, and energy production.”

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