This may be the most important advancement in climate adaptation in U.S. history. Military bases, power plants, turtle nesting grounds, etc., are being affected by rising seas. Whenever there is a new project that will affect these areas, developers have to ensure that the environment is not significantly harmed (this is why the right hates the EPA).
They have to file what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement, aka an EIS. Want to build a new road? File an EIS to show the public if any animal habitat will be disturbed or if human health will be impacted from pollution. Want to build an oil pipeline from Alberta Canada to Texas? File an EIS and post it online for the public to review it.
Build a new high-speed train? File an EIS. Dump mercury pollution into the Great Lakes? EIS. New coal mine? EIS. Fix an old bridge? EIS. Cut down a forest? EIS. There are federal EISs and state EISs (and sometimes there are local EISs, which makes the process to build something very expensive, but they’re all relatively good for the environment.)
The Federal Highway Administration builds and maintains our nation’s highway system. It has to file boat loads of EISs every year. It characterizes an EIS as a federal regulation required by the National Environmental Protection Act, which was signed by Nixon around 1970:
NEPA requires Federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EISs) for major Federal actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment. An EIS is a full disclosure document that details the process through which a transportation project was developed, includes consideration of a range of reasonable alternatives, analyzes the potential impacts resulting from the alternatives, and demonstrates compliance with other applicable environmental laws and executive orders. The EIS process in completed in the following ordered steps: Notice of Intent (NOI), draft EIS, final EIS, and record of decision (ROD).
The NOI is published in the Federal Register by the lead Federal agency and signals the initiation of the process. Scoping, an open process involving the public and other Federal, state and local, agencies, commences immediately to identify the major and important issues for consideration during the study. Public involvement and agency coordination continues throughout the entire process. The draft EIS provides a detailed description of the proposal, the purpose and need, reasonable alternatives, the affected environment, and presents analysis of the anticipated beneficial and adverse environmental effects of the alternatives. Following a formal comment period and receipt of comments from the public and other agencies, the FEIS will be developed and issued. The FEIS will address the comments on the draft and identify, based on analysis and comments, the “preferred alternative”. Read more here.
Writing for Columbia Law School’s Climate Law Blog, sharp student Patrick Woolsey found that the U.S. Military and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are at the forefront of filing EISs that include sea level rise impacts from climate change. In a recent post, Woolsey wrote:
The U.S. military addresses sea level rise in its EISs for coastal bases and installations with particular urgency. In a 2010 EIS, the Navy analyzes the effects of SLR on the expansion of a naval base on the island of Guam and the construction of a deepwater docking facility for aircraft carriers. The Guam EIS recognizes the island’s extreme vulnerability to climate change and SLR. The EIS also discusses SLR in the context of broader security concerns, noting that “in 2008, the National Intelligence Council judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels.”
It’s not just the military who is concerned with rising seas - the Nuclear Regulatory Commission filed EISs for new reactors on the coasts; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration filed EISs for fishery management, coral reefs, and sea turtle habitat; and the Navy is concerned with expanding an island military base in Guam.
EISs are made up of many parts, but the do not have to include sea-level rise. And they certainly do not require developers to include climate change impacts! Politically, climate change is a toxic issue. But, the agencies are showing that they do have the individual power and mandate under the NEPA to manage environmental impacts regardless of the source.
I have no doubt this turn towards adapting projects for climate impacts will hit the Supreme Court within the next few years.