Best Practice: The Department of Energy can expedite National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review when the entity applying for federal funding provides accurate environmental information early in the funding process, and plans its project(s) carefully. Early and accurate environmental information not only helps DOE in determining and efficiently preparing the appropriate level of NEPA review, but also helps with technology selection and most appropriate project location.
Background: The environmental review process that is embodied in NEPA represents an essential, but sometimes challenging, component of almost all Federal projects that involve construction activities, including Federally-funded projects.
NEPA applies to any major Federal action that may significantly affect the quality of the human environment. Where NEPA applies, an agency must conduct some form of environmental review. A categorical exclusion (CX) determination is the quickest form of NEPA review. But DOE can only make a CX determination for an action that clearly does not significantly affect the environment and falls into categories that DOE has already, by rule, established. Where an agency cannot make a CX determination, it must prepare at least one of two NEPA documents: (1) a brief Environmental Assessment (EA) or (2) an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is a more comprehensive document. For an overview of the difference between an EIS and an EA, see “Reviewing Projects’ Potential to Impact the Environment” A simple EA typically takes about four months to complete. An EIS can take a year or more to complete. The more complex and controversial the project, the longer it will likely take to complete NEPA review.
NEPA reviews are complex and often time-consuming. However, time frames can be shortened where the Applicant and agency coordinate early in the funding process.
Case in Point: Early environmental analysis hastened the NEPA process for a wind turbine testing facility. Specifically, the Recipient built on its existing working relationship with DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to obtain technical assistance – through an existing Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). This assistance included both onsite support and specialized testing equipment. As a result, the Recipient already had preliminary drawings for a testing facility developed that it was then able readily to incorporate into the EA – and the EA was practically finished by the time the actual DOE award negotiation process was completed!
This case, identified through the Independent Project Review process, featured a particularly favorable set of preliminary circumstances that allowed the project to move ahead quickly. Nevertheless, there is a larger lesson for any Recipient: early environmental analysis and proper planning can go a long way in ensuring a successful project while meeting important NEPA requirements.