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About the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

Enacted by Congress in 1969, and signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the nation’s most important environmental statute, sometimes referred to as the “Magna Carta” of America’s environmental laws. It requires all federal agencies to give serious consideration to the environmental impacts of projects they approve, fund, or carry out.

Prior to the enactment of NEPA, federal agencies were not legally required to consider the impacts of agency actions on the environment. NEPA changed this. Under NEPA, all federal agencies are required to consider and review the environmental implications of an agency action whenever the action “significantly affects the quality of the human environment.”

NEPA establishes a national policy to use all practicable means and measures “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” Among NEPA’s primary goals is to achieve a “balance between population and resource use which will permit high standards of living and a wide sharing of life’s amenities” (NEPA Sec. 101a and 101b).

NEPA creates a systematic process to help and/or force decision-makers to meaningfully consider the environmental aspects of important federal projects and legislation. Under NEPA, federal agencies and policy-makers must consider the environmental impacts of their actions, and provide an opportunity for public input into the decision-making process. Crucially, NEPA requires consideration of reasonable alternatives to proposed actions and to the status quo.

NEPA represents a commitment to environmental protection and to participatory democracy. At a time when many Americans are cynical about the political process, including the influence of big money and the shallow tone of much political debate, NEPA insists that citizens can understand the issues facing them and discuss them intelligently. It affirms that the government, working with and for the nation’s citizens, can enact policies and put in place programs that further the common good.

The Environmental Impact Statement

The primary means to ensure adequate consideration of environmental issues under NEPA is preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). An EIS is a detailed study of the potential consequences that federal actions and policies may have on the environment. Under NEPA, after a determination is made that an agency action may significantly affect the human environment, the federal agency is required to prepare an EIS. The impact statement must discuss the environmental effects of the proposed federal action and plausible alternatives to that action, including the least environmentally harmful alternative. The term “action” has been broadly defined to include federal projects and plans, state and local programs funded by the federal government, and private or public development authorized by federal permits. 

To prepare an EIS, competent professionals examine existing environmental conditions, such as land use patterns, traffic levels, air and water quality, cultural and archeological resources, visual resources or aesthetics, vegetation and habitat, and wildlife populations and trends.  Collectively, these existing conditions are referred to as the “affected environment” in NEPA. Data are then gathered and analyzed to identify how the proposed action and reasonable alternatives might change current conditions.  Agencies must also examine the impacts of the “no action alternative,” that is, of not implementing the proposed action or any other action alternative.  Issues most likely to be of concern to the public are identified in a process known as “scoping,” and then addressed in the EIS.

The EIS process includes several defined steps. These are:

  • An agency identifies the purpose and need for action and develops a project, plan, or policy proposal. If the agency finds that the proposed action may result in potentially significant environmental impacts, an EIS is required.
  • Notice of Intent (NOI) publication: Published in the Federal Register, this provides a short overview of the proposed project.
  • Scoping: An early opportunity for public review that allows the general public, relevant federal, state, and local agencies, and other interested parties to comment on the intended project.  Scoping helps to determine the scope of the EIS analysis, that is, what it will address, both in terms of issues and alternatives that should be covered.
  • Data Gathering, Analysis, and Drafting of the EIS:  The interdisciplinary study team gathers relevant data (and only relevant data, in that an EIS is not supposed to be an encyclopedic document), conducts appropriate analyses, and drafts the EIS.  The main sections are:  1) Introduction and Purpose and Need; 2) Proposed Action and Alternatives; 3) Affected Environment; and 4) Environmental Consequences, including cumulative effects.  This “statement” of environmental  impacts typically runs several hundred pages, more (if appendices are included), although there is a wide range in the length of EIS’s.
  • Draft EIS Publication: Considers public scoping comments and lays out the main findings regarding the likely environmental impacts of alternative courses of action.  When the EIS is released to the public, a Notice of Availability (NOA) is published in the Federal Register.  Stakeholders are typically informed by other means as well.
  • DEIS Comment Period: A review period for interested parties to comment on the draft EIS, which may include public hearings or meetings.
  • Final EIS Publication: Incorporates and formally responds to public comments received on the draft EIS, discusses additional alternatives and issues (if necessary), makes corrections and other changes to the draft EIS (if necessary), and identifies the agency’s preferred alternative for implementation.
  • Record of Decision (ROD): Provides the public record of the agency’s decision, describes public involvement and the agency decision-making process, and presents commitments to reduce unavoidable environmental impacts (if necessary).  These “commitments” are called mitigation measures. 

To learn more about NEPA, visit the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) website.

To tell us what issues you think an EIS on U.S. immigration policy should cover, contact us via our scoping page or our contact page, and come back regularly to this website for further opportunities to participate.