How much does it cost taxpayers for the federal government to do environmental assessments? And what’s the return on that cost?
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy testifies on Capitol Hill with Acting EPA Chief Financial Officer Maryann Froehlich, March 27, 2014. (AFP/Getty Images/Jim Watson)
The answer is there's not enough information to evaluate the cost and benefit of much of the federal government’s environmental evaluations, a new audit by the Government Accountability Office found. And based on information from the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency, there may be no “mechanism” for the government to figure it out.
These environmental evaluations – which fall under three categories established by the National Environmental Policy Act – are frequently the subject of litigation between developers and environmental groups, one reason Republican members of Congress sought the study on the accuracy of the assessment.
“Little information exists on the costs and benefits of completing NEPA analyses,” the GAO report released Tuesday said. “Agencies do not routinely track the cost of completing NEPA analyses, and there is no government-wide mechanism to do so, according to officials from CEQ, EPA and other agencies GAO reviewed.”
The three types of environmental evaluation are environmental impact studies for larger projects such as roads, bridges, large complexes and other developments that would likely have a significant environmental impact; environmental assessments for smaller public and private developments, in some cases to determine the impact and whether a larger environmental study should be done; and projects that don’t fall into a particular category that are called category exclusions, which make up about 95 percent of all assessments, according to the White House Council on Environmental Quality that oversees the assessments.
“The adequacy of these analyses has been a focus of litigation,” the GAO report said.
Since the mid-1970s through today, the number of National Environmental Policy Act lawsuits filed each year has remained steady — about just above or just below 100 suits per year. In 2011, there were 94 suits, down from the average of 129 from 2001 through 2008, according to the Council on Economic Quality.
“Although the number of NEPA lawsuits is relatively small when compared with the total number of NEPA analyses, one lawsuit can affect numerous federal decisions or actions in several states, having a far-reaching impact,” the GAO says.
The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy maintains information of environmental impact studies that make up about 1 percent of all assessments, but those are generally the only assessments that are tracked. The GAO said its findings in 2014 are similar to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report that found “the total number of federal actions subject to NEPA is difficult, since most agencies track only the number of actions requiring an EIS.
The median environmental impact study cost from 2003 through 2012 was $1.4 million, according to the Department of Energy. In 2003, the Council on Environmental Quality estimated the cost ranging from $250,000 to $2 million. But since the far more involved environmental impact studies generally cost more than the other types that make up more than 95 percent of the all studies.
One reason why it’s difficult to quantify the costs of environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act is because in the accounting, these studies are not always separated from assessments done under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws, the GAO said.
Unlike those two laws, NEPA is spread across several agencies, without a single agency have enforcement authority.
“This absence of enforcement authority is sometimes cited as the reason that litigation has been chosen as an avenue by individuals and groups that disagree with how an agency meets NEPA requirements for a given project. For example, a group may allege that an EIS is inadequate, or that the environmental impacts of an action will in fact be significant when an agency has determined they are not,” the GAO report said. “Critics of NEPA have stated that those who disapprove of a federal project will use NEPA as the basis for litigation to delay or halt that project. Others argue that litigation only results when agencies do not comply with NEPA’s procedural requirements.”
The GAO goes on to say, “The federal government prevails in most NEPA litigation.”
The report was done at the request of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works; House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.); House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.); House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.); and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).