A Short Course in Environmental Acronyms

Under NEPA, the EPA (or DOT, NRCS, USDA, or another federal agency) oversees EIA and EIS processes. On the other hand, FWS and NMFS are responsible for overseeing the ESA.

OMG. Sometimes the federal government seems to have a language all its own. To help you navigate your way through that territory, here’s a tourist guide to NEPA, EPA, ESA, and kindred abbreviations:

What Is NEPA?

The National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, establishes a national framework for protecting the environment. NEPA was enacted in 1970 to ensure that decision makers consider the effects projects will have on the environment. If a project might significantly affect the “quality of the human environment,” officials must go through an established process to identify those effects and propose ways to minimize negative consequences. The federal agency of record for any particular project oversees this process; that could be the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) or any of a number of other federal agencies (DOT — Department of Transportation, NRCS — Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA — U.S. Department of Agriculture, etc.).

When Are NEPA Requirements Invoked?

Construction of or improvements to airports, highways, military complexes, and other federally connected infrastructure will probably require decision makers to examine what effect the work will have on the environment. Some projects may have to demonstrate Categorical Exclusion (CatEx or CE), which is a class of actions that the federal agency has determined do not individually or cumulatively have significant effect on the human environment. To demonstrate this, agencies have a list of projects that fall into this CatEx. If a project is not deemed CatEx, some research into the physical, economic, social, and historical environment needs to be conducted to demonstrate that the impacts are minimal.

Other projects will require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) or a full environmental impact statement (EIS).

What Is an EIA?

An EIA is a formal report that includes specific information about the project:

  • The purpose and need for the project
  • Potential alternatives, including taking no action
  • A summary of the environmental consequences of the proposed action
  • A list of agencies and people who participated in the decision process

The EIA has two possible outcomes. If the determination is that the proposed project will not have significant environmental impacts, the EIA results in a “finding of no significant impact,” or FONSI, and work on the project clears this hurdle. The other possibility is that the EIA may indicate a proposed project will have significant effects on the environment. In that case, an EIS will be required.

What Is an EIS?

An EIS goes beyond an EIA to take a further look at potential environmental effects of a project. It examines the physical and social impacts of a proposed project. It requires greater detail, more examination of potential consequences, and a deeper look at alternatives, and it considers what might be done to mitigate potential environmental concerns.

What Is the ESA, and How Could It Affect a Project?

The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, works for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals – as well as the habitats they rely on. Decision makers must consult with the appropriate agencies when planned projects may affect an endangered species or critical habitat. Those agencies include the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service. That’s the FWS and the NMFS, to add a few more entries to the tourist guide to environmental abbreviations. (This is also not to be confused with a Phase 1 environmental site assessment, also known as an ESA, which is a due diligence tool used often in property transactions.)

One section of the Endangered Species Act encourages states to develop and maintain their own conservation programs for threatened and endangered species. For example, Wisconsin passed its endangered species law in 1972. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – WDNR – is responsible for enforcement.

Are Environmental Assessments Required Only for Federal Projects?

States vary in their requirements. Wisconsin, for example, passed the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act, or WEPA, in 1972 to ensure that officials consider the environmental impacts of state projects. WEPA requirements could also apply to local governments and private parties whose projects involve state agency regulations or funding. The state agency of record (WDNR, Department of Corrections, Department of Administration, etc.) oversees Wisconsin’s EIA and EIS processes, depending on which agency is coordinating the project.

So, there it is. NEPA and ESA were passed at the federal level to protect the environment for humans and endangered species; WEPA is much like NEPA, only for the state of Wisconsin. Projects that could affect the environment might require an EIA; if the EIA results in a FONSI, that portion of the review process is over. But if the EIA shows there may be significant environmental impacts from a project, an EIS will be required.

OK, got that? Congratulations! If not, here’s a cheat sheet:

Common Environmental Acronyms

CatEx/CE Categorical Exclusion
EIA Environmental Impact Assessment
EIS Environmental Impact Statement
EPA Environmental Protection Agency
ESA Endangered Species Act
FONSI Finding of No Significant Impact
FWS Fish and Wildlife Service
NEPA National Environmental Protection Act
NMFS National Marine Fisheries Service
WEPA Wisconsin Environmental Protection Act
WDNR Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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