The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was enacted to: declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality. Sec. 2 [42 U.S. Code § 4321].
NEPA is our basic national charter for protection of the environment. It establishes policy, sets goals (section 101), and provides means (section 102) for carrying out the policy. Section 102(2) contains "action-forcing" provisions to make sure that federal agencies act according to the letter and spirit of the Act.
President Nixon signed NEPA into law on January 1, 1970. NEPA set forth a bold new vision for America. Acknowledging the decades of environmental neglect that had significantly degraded the nation's landscape and damaged the human environment, the law was established to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans. NEPA was the first major environmental law in the United States and is often called the "Magna Carta" of Federal environmental laws. NEPA requires Federal Agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. To implement NEPA's policies, Congress prescribed a procedure, commonly referred to as "the NEPA process" or "the environmental impact assessment process."
The ultimate goal of the NEPA process is to foster excellent action that protects, restores, and enhances our environment. This is achieved through the utilization of environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs), which provide public officials with relevant information and allow a "hard look" at the potential environmental consequences of each proposed project.
NEPA has been effective in providing public officials with the information they need to make better decisions. "Thank God for NEPA because there were so many pressures to make a selection for a technology that might have been forced upon us and that would have been wrong for the country . . . ." Then-Secretary of Energy James Watkins made this statement before the House Armed Services Committee in 1992 in regards to his decision to forgo proposed production technologies. The environmental review process informed him, and other decision makers, that this technology would not align with the Department of Energy's departure from an emphasis on weapons productions towards an emphasis on cleanup of production facilities.
NEPA's success has not been limited to domestic environmental issues, it has since been replicated throughout the world. Countries and non-governmental organizations all over the globe have created their own EIA programs, modeled upon NEPA, making NEPA an international catalyst in the field of environmental protection.
NEPA established the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) within the Executive Office of the President to ensure that Federal agencies meet their obligations under NEPA. CEQ oversees NEPA implementation, principally through issuing guidance and interpreting regulations that implement NEPA's procedural requirements. CEQ also reviews and approves Federal agency NEPA procedures, approves alternative arrangements for compliance with NEPA for emergencies, and helps to resolve disputes between Federal agencies and with other governmental entities and members of the public.
Today, CEQ is involved in tackling a wide range of environmental issues and setting forth a number of initiatives. One of CEQ's major responsibilities is to develop and recommend national policies to the President that promote the improvement of environmental quality and meet the Nation's goals.