The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (codified as 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.) was enacted as P.L. 91-190 on January 1, 1970. The law provides permanent authorizations for appropriations of $1 million annually. Although primarily administered by the Executive Office of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, several NEPA responsibilities have been assigned to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The basic purposes of NEPA are spelled out in section 2 as follows:

  • to declare a national policy to encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment;
  • to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man;
  • to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems andnatural resources important to the Nation; and
  • to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.

These purposes are followed by a Declaration of National Environmental Policy in title I which commits the Federal Government to work with other levels of government and other groups in order to improve environmental conditions, while title U creates the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in the Executive Office of the President.

Table 25. National Environmental Policy Act and Amendments
(42 U.S.C. 4321-4347)
Year Act Public Law Number
1970 National Environmental Policy Act P.L. 91-190
1975 Authorizations - Office of Environmental Quality P.L. 94-52
1975 National Environmental Policy Act
[Administrative Delegation to States] Amendment
P.L. 94-8

In order to carry out that overall policy statement, the Act further made it the "continuing responsibility" of the Federal Government to take "all practicable1' steps to reach a number of substantive goals that embodied nationwide improvements in environmental quality. These goals, as listed in section 101, include assuring healthful surroundings, beneficially using the environment without degrading it, achieving a balance between population and resources, and enhancing renewable resources while recycling depletable resources.

NEPA section 102 directs that all policies, regulations, and public laws should be administered in accordance with NEPA, and that all Federal agencies should consider environmental values in their decision-making, including the documentation of environmental effects.

NEPA's unique requirement for preparation of environmental impact statements (EIS)s has had a dramatic influence on Federal agency decision-making, as numerous court rulings enforced strict compliance with the environmental assessment procedures for major programs and projects.

Council On Environmental Quality Responsibilities

The three-member Council operates under title II authority to carry out overall NEPA policy, including oversight of individual agencies' NEPA compliance under Council regulations issued in 1979 (40 CFR 1500). Title II also requires an annual Environmental Quality report by the President to Congress, a function for which the Council in recent years has relied on the Environmental Protection Agency for major assistance. Additional authorization for Council staff and programs was enacted in the Environmental Quality Improvement Act of 1970 (42 U.S.C. 4371-4375, P.L. 91-224); under the combined authorizations, CEQ appropriations have averaged approximately two million dollars of annual funding.

As described in its seventeenth annual report:

CEQ promulgates and interprets regulations implementing the procedural provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act which are binding on all Federal agencies. This responsibility includes: informal consultations with federal agencies regarding appropriate implementation of NEPA procedures; approval of federal agency NEPA procedures; informal consultation with state and local governments and private citizens regarding NEPA procedures; commenting on proposed legislation and testimony which is NEPA related; designating lead agencies for the purpose of preparing environmental impact statements (EIS); making determinations on requests for emergency exemptions and alternative procedures for supplemental EIS(s); handling formal referrals to CEQ of major [controversial] federal actions; participating in international activities related to environmental impact assessment; and disseminating information about the NEPA process to interested parties.37

Environmental Protection Agency Functions Under NEPA

Under NEPA, each agency is responsible for reviewing and commenting on other agencies' EIS(s) -- as to the commenting agency's expertise -- in order to assess their adequacy and to coordinate interagency decision-making. The EPA has developed procedures for preparing its review and public comments on all impact statements under additional authority contained in section 309 of the Clean Air Act; the standardized procedures for EIS preparation and review which apply Government-wide were adopted by the Council on Environmental Quality in 1979 (40 GFR 1500).

Legislation has substantially limited EPA's own impact statement preparation. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (P.L. 92-500) specified that statements would be required only for wastewater facilities and new source permits. As the States assume the responsibilities for water pollution control programs as the law provides, even the two actions that are subject to EIS requirements are no longer considered Federal decisions, and NEPA is no longer applicable. These 1972 amendments also sanction the use of EPA's water quality standards by other Federal agencies for purposes of compliance with NEPA, thereby overturning a holding of the Federal appeals court which would have required water quality determinations by the Atomic Energy Commission.38 Further, the Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-319) provided that no impact statements would be required for any actions taken by the EPA under the Clean Air Act. Courts have also held that waste clean-up procedures can constitute a "functional equivalent" of NEPA compliance.

The following excerpt from EPA's testimony before the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee on February 2,1984, outlines the Agency's role in the NEPA process:

The Office of Federal Activities ... is responsible for working with other Federal agencies to assure that they carry out their activities in an environmentally sound manner; responsibilities of the office include the Environmental Impact Statement review program, [and] NEPA Compliance for EPA Programs...

EPA has NEPA responsibility in four programs or activities. These are: construction grants, new source National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, research and development programs, and facility support activities. As part of the 1974 Policy on NEPA compliance, EPA also committed to prepare environmental impact statements on selected significant regulatory actions, although not required to do so by law.

The Agency believed that the preparation of EIS(s) would have beneficial effects on the selected actions and established procedures for implementing the policy. These so-called voluntary EIS procedures were published in the Federal Register in October 1974. They cover specified actions under the Clean Air Act, the Noise Control Act, the Atomic Energy Act, the Federal Insecticide, Rode nticide, and Fungicide Act [sic), and the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act.

The second major responsibility is EPA's management of the filing process and records for all federal EIS(s). This was originally a CEQ function, but was transferred to EPA [Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1977) Third, ... Section 309 of the Clean Air Act and the CEQ regulations require EPA to review, and comment in writing on all major Federal actions, proposed regulations and Administration proposals for legislation.

Separate procedures for the assessment of certain international actions by all Federal agencies were contained in Executive Order 12114, issued January 4, 1979.

Selected References

Galdwell, Lynton K. 20 Years With NEPA. Environment, v.31, Dec.1989. pp. 6-11, 25-28.

Ember, Lois. "Environmental Council: Move to Kill Agency Stirs Opposition." CHEMICAL AND ENGINEERING. April 12, 1993, v.71, pp.6-7.

U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY: TWENTYThIRD ANNUAL REPORT OF THE COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY TOGETHER WITH THE PRESIDENT'S MESSAGE TO CONGRESS. Washington, 1993. 451 p. Partial contents -- Part I: Environmental Issues and Policies -- Part II: Environmental Data and Trends -- The States.

U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. Implementation of Procedural Provisions, Final Regulations. FEDERAL REGISTER, v.43, no.230. Nov.29, 1978. pp.55978-56007. (codified in the Code of Federal Regulations at 40 parts 1500-1508)

U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. Tenth Progress Report on Agency Implementing Procedures Under the National Enuironmental Policy Act. FEDERAL REGISTER, v.46, no.88. May 7,1981. pp. 25502.

Table 25. Major U.S Code Sections National Environmental Policy Act
(as amended) (42 U.S.C. 4321-4347)
42 U.S.C. Section Title NEPA
4321 Congressional Declaration of Purpose  
Subchapter I Policies and Goais  
4331 Congressional declaration of National Environmental Policy Act Sec. 101
4332 Cooperation of agencies; reports; availability of information; recommendations Sec. 102
4333 Conformity of administrative procedures toNational Environmental Policy Act Sec. 103
4334 Other statutory obligations of agencies Sec. 104
4335 Efforts supplemental to existing authorities Sec. 105
Subchapter II - Council on Environmental Quality  
4341 Reports to Congress; recommendations for legislation Sec. 201
4342 Establishment;membership;chairman;appointments Sec. 202
4343 Establishment of personnel, experts and consultants Sec. 203
4344 Duties and functions Sec. 204
4345 Consultation with Citizen Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality Sec. 205
4346 Tenure and compensation of members Sec. 206
4346a Travel reimbursement by private organizations and Federal, State and lcccal Governments Sec. 207
4346b Expenditure in support of international activities Sec. 208
4347 Authorization of appropriations Sec. 208


37 U.S. council on Environmental Quality. Entironmental Quality 1986: Seventeenth Annual Report. Washington, 1988. 282, 136 p. More recent annual reports analyze NEPA compliance trends.

38 Calvert Cliffs' Coordinating Committee V. Atomic Energy Commission, 449 F. 2d 1109 (D.C. Cir. 1971)


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