Will Big Highway Projects Have to Consider Climate Change?

Expanding NEPA to include climate impacts and adaptability won't necessarily mean a future free from this. Photo: ##http://macombpolitics.blogspot.com/2012/03/congress-will-miss-highway-bill.html##Macomb Politics##

Since 1970, the National Environmental Protection Act has required federal agencies to consider the impacts of their projects on air, water, and soil pollution — but not on climate change.

Until recently, carbon dioxide, which causes global warning, wasn’t classified as a pollutant and so couldn’t be regulated under environmental laws. The EPA in 2009 asserted its power to regulate carbon emissions but hasn’t applied it to NEPA analyses for infrastructure – until now.

President Obama hasn’t made the announcement yet, but Bloomberg reported Friday that he “is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects, from pipelines to highways.”

There’s more – projects could also be evaluated according to resiliency in the face of climate change. Would the new infrastructure be destroyed if faced with flooding, drought, or other severe weather? Bloomberg reports that the White House is also “looking at” requiring these climate adaptability and resiliency reports for projects “with 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions or more per year, the equivalent of burning about 100 rail cars of coal.”

Does this mean no more highways?

The conservative National Review’s headline about the changes was, “Did Obama Just Block Keystone?” Columnist Stanley Kurtz speculated that Obama could publicly approve the Keystone XL pipeline and then let the new environmental review process rule it out.

Could the same go for highway projects?

Bloomberg reports that the prospects have businesses “freaked out,” in the words of Ross Eisenberg, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Kurtz’s fear of an automatic disqualification for carbon-positive projects isn’t quite the way NEPA works, though. A finding that a project will increase pollution, including carbon emissions, would be unlikely to actually block any environmentally damaging highway projects that receive federal funding.

“NEPA requires you to do an analysis of alternatives,” said Ilana Preuss of Smart Growth America. “It doesn’t require you to make a different decision.”

Plus, an agency looking to build a highway can stack the deck so that even the alternatives examined are just as harmful. A NEPA report evaluates a proposed project’s environmental impacts against those of an alternative that would serve the same “purpose and need.” If a transportation agency says it “needs” to a build a six-lane road through a particular wetland, NEPA is just going to examine different ways of doing that. It’s not going to ask whether the agency has considered transportation options that don’t involve road-building.

Until now, NEPA has examined project impacts on air, soil, and water — and most projects do have a negative impact on those things. If a NEPA review showing negative environmental impacts was all it took to shut down a road project, we wouldn’t have any roads.

NEPA’s power is in giving communities the information they need to fight the planned project, if the report finds that it will cause more environmental damage than an alternative. Or people can ask for “mitigation” of the damage that will be inflicted. And even that approach has limits — you’ll probably only win a lawsuit if the agency hasn’t followed the required procedure. In addition, MAP-21 weakened NEPA to allow for quicker project delivery, giving communities less time to decide to litigate and punishing agencies for holding up projects.

So even a NEPA report that shows that a project will increase greenhouse gas emissions and cause other destruction may have no impact, if it doesn’t galvanize communities to stop or modify the project.

Even the “freaked out” Ross Eisenberg of NAM told Bloomberg he is really just worried about delays. “I don’t think the answer is ever going to be ‘no,’” he said, “but it can confound things.”

How to use the new rule

Still, Preuss of Smart Growth America said this expansion of NEPA could have an “enormous” impact on transportation spending, making the conditions for road expansion less favorable. But it depends on how the White House Council on Environmental Quality interprets the new rule.

“It’s all in how it gets implemented,” Preuss said. “If the alternatives that they look at, which often happens with NEPA, are either the cars idling in traffic on the road or streaming traffic because we add a lane — if those are the only options they’re looking at, they’re going to get the same answers that they were getting before, that still keep telling them to look at high flow traffic. But if the overall guidance is more comprehensive, it could really encourage folks to look at all different transportation options.”

A requirement to take a closer look at how infrastructure causes and adapts to climate change can only be a positive thing, even if it isn’t an instant game-changer. It will make transportation agencies and public officials look at projects differently, and a method with a lighter environmental footprint might be more likely to emerge as the best way to do things. It could also nudge agencies away from building in particularly vulnerable sites in coastal areas.

Attaching climate considerations to NEPA won’t be seamless. Since climate impacts are global and not necessarily at the site of the proposed project, it doesn’t work like a normal environmental impact review. “Climate impacts are not necessarily considered anywhere in any environmental rule,” said David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment’s climate program. “So, they’re trying to attach climate impacts to something.”

It might turn out that NEPA isn’t the ideal place to do it. One can easily imagine a separate, stronger law actually tying project approval and funding to environmental goals. But in the meantime, a more comprehensive NEPA isn’t a bad thing to have.

13 thoughts on Will Big Highway Projects Have to Consider Climate Change?

  1. This might actually make the alternatives analysis include real options besides several different iterations of a freeway and provide other options that emit less and move the same amount of people. This is a good step forward

  2. http://www.peaktraffic.org

    NEPA isn’t going to be helpful. Here’s a more substantial approach, but it requires a holistic approach to integrate Peak Energy with Climate Change (not a popular topic for most environmental groups).

    George H.W. Bush’s highway law – the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) – requires that Federal aid highway plans are designed for traffic conditions two decades in the future, not current traffic congestion. It’s anyone’s guess what energy (and therefore, traffic) levels will be in the 2030s, but under any physically possible scenario the flow rates of petroleum and other fuels will be considerably less than they are today, since conventional fossil fuels have peaked globally. There will still be oil extraction in the 2030s but at levels less than current rates, and the future fuels will be the dirtier, more expensive, difficult to extract “bottom of the barrel” supplies. Hyper efficient cars, public transit, car sharing, relocalizing production of food and other goods could mitigate these impacts but not prevent them. Therefore, transportation planning needs to focus on maintaining the enormous road networks already built, not expanding them further for travel demand that will not materialize on the energy downslope. The category of investment euphemistically called “modernization” should be dedicated toward quality train service, not super wide superhighways.

    Whether you focus on Peak Oil, Climate Chaos or what is euphemistically called the “Great Recession,” each of these aspects of reaching the limits to growth mandate an end to highway expansion. We cannot afford to built more roads when we cannot maintain what we already have. The transition from cheap, abundant oil to expensive, hard to get oil is reducing the amount that people drive and damaging the economic system that requires endless growth to function. Peak Energy is starting to reduce the physical ability to grow traffic levels, regardless of economic circumstances. Burning fossil fuels pollutes the thin film of the atmosphere, with health consequences and environmental impacts, including global warming. Ecology, energy and money are interconnected and inseparable, and each require a holistic integration with the others to address any of them.

    Energy depletion is not merely about personal transportation. Driving less will be uncomfortable, but eating less would be far more difficult. Most food eaten in the US crosses time zones, some even travels across international borders. As fossil fuels decline we need to grow food where it is eaten. Relocalizing food production, growing food in the cities, community gardens, suburban “food not lawn” efforts, and protection of farmland from asphalt and concrete are all needed to cope with oil depletion.

    The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates a “Supplemental” EIS must be prepared if there are “new circumstances” not anticipated when the scoping process was conducted. Surely reaching the global peak of petroleum production is an important circumstance for a transportation project allegedly designed for travel long past the peak of petroleum.

    If FHWA included Peak Oil into environmental analyses for highway projects, this could create a seismic shift in transportation planning across the United States, allowing for honest public discussion about energy and transportation policies. There are several ways this shift could happen: a successful Federal lawsuit forces FHWA to include Peak Oil, the start of gasoline rationing makes transportation planners consider alternatives, or a change in national policies (probably the least likely in the near future).

    Council on Environmental Quality regulations implementing NEPA

    40 CFR 1502.9: Draft, final and supplemental statements.

    (c) Agencies:

    (1) Shall prepare supplements to either draft or final environmental impact statements if:

    (i) The agency makes substantial changes in the proposed action that are relevant to environmental concerns; or

    (ii) There are significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns and bearing on the proposed action or its impacts.

    Federal Highway Administration regulations about NEPA

    23 CFR 771.130 Supplemental environmental impact statements.

    (a) A draft EIS, final EIS, or supplemental EIS may be supplemented at any time. An EIS shall be supplemented whenever the Administration determines that:

    (1) Changes to the proposed action would result in significant environmental impacts that were not evaluated in the EIS; or

    (2) New information or circumstances relevant to environmental concerns and bearings on the proposed action or its impacts would result in significant environmental impacts not evaluated in the EIS.

    Peak(ed) Oil and Peak(ed) Vehicle Miles Traveled are “new circumstances” that are relevant for proposed transportation projects.

    “These forty million [poor] people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich; because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.”

    — Martin Luther King, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” March 31, 1968 (five days before his assassination)

  3. Sorry, I don’t understand, either. With respect to highways specifically, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects create more jobs per tax dollar spent than highway/road projects. More generally, developing and implementing technology to conserve energy can create more jobs than just maintaining the status quo.

  4. BS. Environmentally-friendly projects can create MORE jobs, not less. In transportation, here’s a study comparing transportation projects funded by the stimulus. Guess which types of projects created the most jobs?


    And look at the boondoggle Tappan Zee Bridge project, and consider the alternatives on the jobs front. Instead of a new, double-sized car-only bridge, the money could have been used on reactivating or expanding the old commuter and freight lines. (Lots of jobs there.) Then the areas around the train stations could be upzoned for density of apartments, offices, etc. (More jobs there too.) And since the infrastructure of sewers, pipes, electric, etc. are already in the vicinity, it is very cost-effective.

  5. Construction jobs are transient. Induced demand is forever.

    But that aside, building bike lanes creates far more of these transient jobs per dollar (or per mile if that’s your measure of choice). Same for building better light rail, better sidewalks, etc.

    Want (transient construction) jobs? Build complete streets, not highways.

  6. Laws is laws, unless you regulate it! There goes democracy. Why not vote for EPA members as opposed to congress? Seriously, we should think about this type of governing and ask if we like it. If the next presidident uses this type of action to lower all gas standards. We would all be pissed and would rightfully demand it changed because it was sneaky.

  7. “Therefore, transportation planning needs to focus on maintaining the
    enormous road networks already built, not expanding them further for
    travel demand that will not materialize on the energy downslope”

    That is obviously crafted to please the wealthy donors for things as preventing I-95 being completed in western New jersey to keep the traffic disproportionately through the Cross Bronx Expressway.

    Just like the failure to facilitate hemp bio mass fuels, as “environmentalism” is about the former not the latter.

  8. Our society will have the fanciest ruins in our species’ history. Egyptian pyramids, Roman ruins, Angkor Wat – these are tiny compared with the highway system after the oil is gone.

  9. Hemp fuel is nice but it is not physically possible for biomass to replace much more concentrated fossil fuels. It’s physics, not politics. Read about Energy Return on Energy Invested.

    Not building all of I-95 is probably one of the few ecological things that happened in New Jersey in the 20th century.

    Meanwhile, traffic levels peaked in the United States in 2007 as the price of petroleum increased as we neared global peak oil. As the cheap easy to get oil is replaced by expensive hard to get oil traffic levels will continue to decline. Growth is over.

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