According to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) whenever the U.S. Federal Government takes a "major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment" it must first consider the environmental impact in a document called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The National Environmental Policy Act (or, NEPA) was signed into law on January 1, 1970 by US President Richard Nixon. ...
An EIS typically has four sections:
- An Introduction including a statement of the Purpose and Need of the Proposed Action.
- A description of the Affected Environment.
- A Range of Alternatives to the proposed action. Alternatives are considered the "heart" of the EIS.
- An analysis of the environmental impacts of each of the possible alternatives.
The purpose of NEPA is to promote excellence in decision making by federal agencies by making "detailed information concerning significant environmental impacts" available to both agency leaders and the public. (See the Supreme Court decision: Robertson v. Methow Valley Citizens Council, 490 U.S. 332, 349 (1989).)
Not all federal actions require a full EIS. If the action is not likely to cause a significant impact the agency may prepare a smaller, shorter document called an Environmental Assessment (EA). However, EAs are only appropriate if there will be "no signficant impact."
Contrary to a widespread misconception, NEPA does not prohibit the federal government or its licensees/permittees from harming the environment, but merely requires that the prospective impacts be understood and disclosed in advance.
The NEPA Process
The NEPA Process is designed to involve the public and gather the best available information in a single place so that decision makers can be fully informed when they make their choices.
The process has the following steps:
- Scoping: When a project is first proposed the agency announces it with a notice in the Federal Register (http://www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/index.html), notices in local media, and letters to citizens and groups that it knows are likely to be interested. Citizens and groups are welcome to send in comments helping the agency identify the issues it must address in the EIS (or EA).
- Draft EIS: Based on both agency expertise, and issues raised by the public the agency prepares a Draft EIS with a full description of the Affected Environment, a reasonable range of alternatives, and an analysis of the impacts of each alternative. The public is then provided a second opportunity to provide comments.
- Final EIS & Proposed Action: Based on the comments on the Draft EIS, the agency writes a Final EIS, and announces its proposed action. The public is not invited to comment on this, but if they are still unhappy, or feel that the agency has missed a major issue they may protest the EIS to the Director of the agency. The Director may either ask the agency to revise the EIS, or explain to the protester why their complaints are actually taken care of.
- Record of Decision: Once all the protests are resolved the agency issues a Record of Decision which is its final action prior to implementation. If members of the public are still dissatisfied with the outcome they may sue the agency in Federal court.
State and International NEPAs
The same general pattern has since been followed by several U.S. state governments that have adopted "little NEPA's," i.e., state laws imposing EIS requirements for particular state actions. Many other countries have also enacted laws requiring environmental impact assessment. For example, the European Community has established a mix of mandatory and discretionary procedures for assessing environmental impacts.  A U.S. state is any one of the fifty states (four of which officially favor the term commonwealth) which, together with the District of Columbia and Palmyra Atoll (an uninhabited incorporated unorganized territory), form the United States of America. ...
The European Community (EC), most important of three European Communities, was originally founded on March 25, 1957 by the signing of the Treaty of Rome under the name of European Economic Community. ...
Environmental Impact Assessments
An environmental impact assessment is often confused with an Environmental Impact Statement, but it is not the same thing. An EIA is a creation of the Environmenal Protection Agency used to monitor toxics. The names are unfortunately similar. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is an assessment of the likely human environmental health impact, risk to ecological health, and changes to natures services that a project may have. ...