President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. Congress enacted NEPA to establish a national policy for the environment, provide for the establishment of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and for other purposes. 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 proposed major Federal actions prior to making decisions.
Section 101 of NEPA sets forth a national policy "to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated 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." 42 U.S.C. 4331(a). Section 102 of NEPA establishes procedural requirements, applying that national policy to proposals for major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment by requiring Federal agencies to prepare a detailed statement on: (1) the environmental impact of the proposed action; (2) any adverse effects that cannot be avoided; (3) alternatives to the proposed action; (4) the relationship between local short-term uses of man’s environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long-term productivity; and (5) any irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources that would be involved in the proposed action. 42 U.S.C. 4332(2)(C).
NEPA ensures agencies consider the significant environmental consequences of their proposed actions and inform the public about their decision making. Countries and non-governmental organizations all over the globe have created their own environmental impact assessment programs, modeled upon NEPA, making NEPA an international catalyst in the field of environmental protection.
The Council on Environmental Quality
NEPA established 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. One of CEQ's major responsibilities is also to develop and recommend national policies to the President that promote the improvement of environmental quality and meet the Nation's goals. For more information on CEQ initiatives, please visit WhiteHouse.gov/CEQ.
CEQ has comprehensively updated its NEPA implementing regulations – 40 CFR Parts 1500-1508, first issued in 1978 – to modernize provisions, streamline infrastructure project development, and promote better decision making by the Federal government. See the Regulations page for information on the final rule CEQ announced on July 15, 2020.