New, stricter streamlining requirements will affect all bureaus that fall under the Department of Interior (DOI) looking to develop environmental impact statements—also known as EISs.
Many asked if it’s even possible: Completing an EIS in one year with a 150-page limit as required by the DOI Secretarial Order 3355 for streamlining environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). EISs help the public and the federal agency proposing an action evaluate the environmental effects of its action and alternatives. One of the first EISs written under these new guidelines has been completed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and ICF – within the 150-page limit and within the time frames required for EISs that began before the Secretarial Order was issued (per a DOI guidance memo).
As a third-party contractor to the USFWS, we developed the EIS, which evaluates whether the USFWS should approve a habitat conservation plan (HCP) and issue an incidental take permit (ITP) under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act for American Electric Power. For this project, the USFWS issued a notice of intent to prepare an EIS on January 19, 2017 (82 FR 6625). Later that year, Executive Order 13807 was issued and quickly followed by DOI Secretarial Order 3355. This meant that not only did we have to meet the new requirements, we also had to adjust our EIS approach after having already started the project in order to be successful.
The new EIS requirements call for strict time limits and page limits for all EISs developed by DOI bureaus. You’ll need to revisit processes and content and determine the most efficient way to produce a document that concisely expresses your project’s needs—and is also robust enough to be legally defensible.
Here's what we learned.
Developing a new EIS approach
American Electric Power is one of the largest utilities in the U.S., generating and delivering power in over a dozen states. The goal of the project is to streamline company operations and mitigate their impacts on the endangered American Burying Beetle across 62 counties in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas over the next 30 years.
To meet the tight deadlines, page limits, and information requirements, our creative strategies included:
- Developing a streamlined approach to presenting results of impact analyses to avoid redundancy when presenting the impacts for each alternative
- Removing unnecessary text for agency decision-making (i.e., lengthy description of regulations and statutes)
- Eliminating or streamlining resource impact analyses where the results showed no impact or very little impact
- Collaborative working sessions with the USFWS to storyboard, discuss review comments, and make real-time decisions
Lessons learned from the new requirements
In the end, the EIS came in under the time and page limit requirements: The final EIS was published six months sooner than was required under the DOI guidance memo’s requirements; the final EIS was 149 pages, from cover page to index.
Under the new requirements, there are two keys to success to maximize the benefits of this streamlined process and minimize any drawbacks – communication and knowledge.
Communication. It is important to work closely with the agency project managers to ensure we understand their needs and meet their expectations and those of their management. Both teams (HCP and NEPA) should have regular communication with the agency project managers throughout the process to ensure they understand what the requirements mean for them.
Knowledge. The HCP team should have a basic understanding of NEPA. Likewise, the NEPA team should have experience integrating with the ESA process for HCP projects, as well as an understanding of DOI Secretarial Order 3355 and the guidance memos. The NEPA team should have strong technical analysis and experience with successful adherence to procedural requirements to reduce any perceived or real risks.
As we look forward, the landscape will continue to evolve with guidance issued by the department and its bureaus. To ensure success under the new requirements, we should continue the dialogue and building understanding of best practices for meeting the new requirements.
The notice of availability for the final EIS was published in the Federal Register on October 19, 2018 and the final record of decision and ITP were signed by USFWS in December 2018. The EIS, HCP, Notice of Availability (NOA) and Record of Decision for this project are available for public viewing.