Updated NEPA Rules Are a Big Win for Climate, Communities, and Birds

Improvements to the National Environmental Policy Act will increase community engagement and require that federal agencies consider climate impacts.
Sandhill Crane. Foto: Chuck Wood/Audubon Photography Awards

Since it was first signed into law in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been one of the most important statutes for protecting birds, other wildlife, and communities from the dangers of pollution, habitat impacts, and other environmental harm. NEPA requires that federal agencies assess the potential environmental impacts of proposed actions, and that communities be notified and have a chance to weigh in before a final decision is made. NEPA applies to actions taken by the federal government that could have a significant impact on the environment, including permitting of public or private infrastructure projects, drafting of regulations, and decisions about federal grant programs. Now, the Biden Administration has announced new rules that restore NEPA to its original intent while also strengthening community engagement and addressing environmental justice and climate concerns.  

The revisions to NEPA will help ensure that Americans have a say in federal decisions, spanning from highway routes to energy production on public lands. As part of this updated rule, federal agencies will now be obligated to determine and publish the potential effects of decisions on climate change, public health, and communities historically exposed to pollution. They must also identify and directly analyze reasonable alternative actions that could reduce the proposed action's climate-related effects. If well-implemented, this approach will reduce conflict and result in more robust, more resilient projects, while ensuring that the voices of impacted individuals are heard.  

The climate and environmental justice provisions come four years after the Trump Administration rolled back critical protections for birds and communities under NEPA. In 2020, the National Audubon Society joined a lawsuit against the Trump Administration to protect this bedrock environmental law. This is the second rule related to NEPA announced by the Biden Administration since 2021, and it undoes many of the harmful provisions put into place in 2020. 

Benefits for Birds and People 

Federal agencies must consider climate impacts when making decisions on issues like how we use our limited natural resources or public lands. Otherwise, we risk increasing greenhouse gas emissions while worsening the biodiversity crisis and decreasing our resilience to climate change. For instance, some prime locations for infrastructure development are also critical habitats for birds or are key natural climate stores, like mature forest stands.  

Updates to NEPA expressly address this concern by:  

  • requiring that agencies identify any potential climate impacts and publicly disclose which alternative has the lowest net greenhouse gas emissions and the greatest net climate benefits,  
  • providing critical transparency to help communities understand the full climate impacts of permitting decisions made by the government, and 
  • ensuring that community voices are heard by allowing the public to weigh the pros and cons of these decisions.  

This rule will also ensure that the impacts on all communities are considered by explicitly incorporating environmental justice considerations into decision making. Federal agencies will be required to conduct additional public engagement with communities historically burdened by pollution, and to analyze whether a proposed course of action could have disproportionate and adverse human health and environmental impacts. These changes to NEPA’s provisions will keep the public informed about federal decisions and ensure that decisions accurately reflect the benefits and burdens they may impose on all communities.  

A Better NEPA Means Better Projects 

By increasing community participation, NEPA will result in improved energy and infrastructure projects. Too often, unresolved conflicts between communities and project developers can result in prolonged reviews, delayed project timelines, and costly litigation. Studies have shown that federal agencies can help resolve these conflicts by proactively engaging with communities early and often. 

We have seen firsthand how meaningful community engagement can help get projects over the finish line. For example, Audubon worked with Pattern Energy on the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project to positively impact the federal approval process while improving outcomes for birds and people. We provided guidance on best practices and briefed federal agencies on the impacts of different route alternatives that were considered, which helped advance the NEPA permitting process. Pattern committed to several bird-friendly measures, including changing some crossings along the Rio Grande River and funding bird research.

In this way, a strong NEPA will mean better public health and environmental outcomes and fewer delays for responsibly-sited infrastructure and clean energy projects needed to combat the climate crisis.  

Looking Ahead 

This rule is a significant win for birds, people, and the planet, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. We must act on climate, and do so quickly, to protect birds and our communities. That’s why Audubon is committed to combating the climate crisis by supporting 100 gigawatts of responsibly-sited clean energy and transmission capacity across the country by 2028. In this process, Audubon is providing critical insights into how to best site and permit projects to protect birds from impacts while also reducing emissions. This new NEPA rule is a welcome ally in that fight, ensuring that Audubon members and conservation organizations like Audubon have a seat at the table so we build out transmission and renewable energy with an eye toward a more sustainable, bird-friendly, and equitable future.