Let's Make Future NYS Environmental Reviews More Relevant to A Post-Sandy Climate

Here is a blog post from my NRDC colleague, Jon Krois, highlighting one of NRDC’s post-Sandy priorities for action by public officials in New York:

One year after Sandy, the idea of the fluke ‘hundred year storm,’ impossible to predict and nearly impossible to prepare for, is an idea we can no longer afford. Climate change is bringing with it more intense storms, higher storm surges, and more frequent flooding. The odds of a Sandy-like disaster happening again in New York have already increased by 50 percent as a result of climate change. More frequent storms are a reality in our region. 

So it makes sense that we get better informed and better prepared for this new climate reality.

One area ripe for reform is the environmental review process. There are many environmental review laws, state and federal, but at the heart of them is a simple idea: those seeking to advance major new projects must consider the environmental consequences of their actions and explain why they have made one choice instead of another. Generally speaking, if a government action is likely to have significant environmental effects, then the project sponsor must prepare an in-depth report on those impacts, address alternatives available, and identify irretrievable commitments of resources. Laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and state versions like New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) have been cornerstones of environmental protection since the 1970s because they encourage thoughtful, environmentally conscious decision-making.

Traditionally, these laws have addressed ‘conventional’ impacts like air and water pollution, threats to wildlife and habitat, noise, and the like.

Recently, government agencies have taken limited steps to incorporate climate change considerations into federal and state environmental review processes. In 2010, for example, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) proposed that government decision-makers subject to NEPA address greenhouse gas emissions as well as the relationship of climate change effects to most actions, including in design, environmental impacts, mitigation, and adaptation measures. Many federal agencies subject to NEPA have also decided to address climate change, taking it on themselves to consider both the impacts of their actions on climate change and the impacts of climate change on their actions.

In New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation has also begun to analyze climate change under SEQRA. In 2009, for example, the Department issued guidance explaining how to address energy use and greenhouse gas emissions when reviewing a proposed action.

These were steps in the right direction.

Unfortunately, there are still important gaps in federal and state environmental review procedures. These gaps must be closed if we are to ensure that future analyses of proposed projects fully take our changing climate into account, so that decision-makers can plan accordingly. There are two major areas where environmental review processes need to be strengthened:

1)      Energy Efficiency. Environmental reviews should more thoroughly consider energy efficiency issues. In addition to predicting the amount of energy a proposed project will use, the environmental review should compare the selected alternative with the most energy efficient alternative feasible.

2)      Climate Change Resiliency.  Environmental reviews should, as a routine matter, specifically analyze the resiliency of proposed buildings and structures in the face of climate change dangers from storms and other extreme weather events. Such reviews should focus on the impacts of climate change-related weather on the structural integrity of proposed buildings; on building-related risks to public health, safety, and the environment; on how safe and self-sufficient the building will be in the event of utility outages; and on how feasible it will be to repair or replace the building if it is damaged by climate change. Having evaluated those impacts, environmental reviews should also require decision-makers to address how best to mitigate those impacts.

The one year anniversary of Sandy is a reminder that we need to address climate change and its dangers now and with every tool we have. Environmental review laws have been a vital piece of encouraging government at every level to consider the environmental consequences of their actions. If those laws are to continue to help protect us, as they have for decades, they must more comprehensively address the realities of climate change.