The National Environmental Policy Act: Background and Implementation Page: 4 of 38
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The National Environmental Policy Act:
Background and Implementation
Prior to the 1960s, little formal consideration was given to the potential impact
of human activity on the environment. Beginning in the late 1950s and into the
1960s, the public became increasingly aware of and concerned about those impacts.
During that time, Members of Congress debated the need for a national policy on the
environment and for an Executive-level council or committee that could provide
advice to the President on environmental policy issues. The statute that ultimately
addressed these needs was the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA,
42 U.S.C. 4321-4347).
Signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, NEPA was the first of
several major environmental laws passed in the 1970s. It declared a national policy
to protect the environment. To implement its policy, NEPA requires federal agencies
to provide a detailed statement of environmental impacts, subsequently referred to
as an environmental impact statement (EIS), for every recommendation or report on
proposals for legislation and other major federal action significantly affecting the
quality of the human environment.
The act also created the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in the
Executive Office of the President. Among other duties, CEQ provides oversight of
NEPA's implementation. In 1978, CEQ was authorized by executive order to issue
regulations applicable to all federal agencies regarding the preparation of EISs.
However, CEQ was not authorized to enforce those regulations.
As it was subsequently interpreted, NEPA is a procedural statute with two
primary aims. First, it obligates federal agencies to consider every significant aspect
of the environmental impact of an action before proceeding with it. Second, it
ensures that the agency responsible for the action will inform the public what the
action is and that it has considered environmental concerns in its decision-making
process. In this capacity, NEPA has become one of the primary mechanisms through
which the public is able to participate in the federal decision-making process.
As a procedural statute, NEPA does not require agencies to elevate
environmental concerns above others. Instead, NEPA requires only that the agency
assess the environmental consequences of an action and its alternatives before
proceeding. If the adverse environmental effects of the proposed action are
adequately identified and evaluated, the agency is not constrained by NEPA from
deciding that other benefits outweigh the environmental costs and moving forward
with the action.
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The National Environmental Policy Act: Background and Implementation, report, June 7, 2007; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc817006/m1/4/: accessed December 14, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.