NEPA and Downstream Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Coal Exports

Sheargold, Elizabeth; Walavalkar, Smita

As U.S. coal exports increase and new infrastructure is proposed to improve access to burgeoning markets in Asia, controversy has arisen regarding the scope of environmental review that should be carried out by government. In particular, there is significant disagreement as to whether the end-use of
exported coal and the emissions generated by its combustion fall within the scope of environmental review. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) sets out an assessment process that applies to many Federal agency actions relating to coal export, including the grant of leases for coal
mines, approval for new railway construction and the grant of permits for coal export terminals. Under NEPA, an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be prepared for any major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment. This includes direct, indirect and cumulative effects. The question of which indirect consequences of an action should be considered, and how far the review extends into upstream or downstream effects, is essentially a question of causation. Where a downstream event, such as the export and end-use of coal, is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of an action or there is a reasonably close causal relationship, then those downstream effects are within the scope of NEPA review. The greatest challenge in evaluating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under NEPA is determining when they are likely to have a “significant” impact on the environment. Climate change is a highly complex problem, and the GHGs emitted by any single project are unlikely to have a substantial impact on global
atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Thus, agencies need to consider the cumulative impacts of these projects -- as required by NEPA -- and their relative contribution to climate change.

Geographic Areas


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Sabin Center for Climate Change Law
Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia University
Sabin Center for Climate Change Law White Papers
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July 15, 2015