National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The National Environmental Policy Act, one of the most important pieces of U.S. environmental legislation ever passed, became a critical model for similar laws worldwide.

Summary of Event

“Environmental impact assessment” refers to the process of examining an activity for its environmental effects before making a decision to engage in the activity. The United States was the first nation to establish a systematic approach to this process, with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). President Richard M. Nixon signed the legislation into law on January 1, 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency was headed at the time by William D. Ruckelshaus. Environmental policy, U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (1969) [kw]National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed (Jan. 1, 1970) [kw]Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed, National (Jan. 1, 1970) [kw]Act of 1969 Is Signed, National Environmental Policy (Jan. 1, 1970) Environmental policy, U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (1969) [g]North America;Jan. 1, 1970: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed[10670] [g]United States;Jan. 1, 1970: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed[10670] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 1, 1970: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed[10670] [c]Environmental issues;Jan. 1, 1970: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed[10670] [c]Natural resources;Jan. 1, 1970: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed[10670] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy Ruckelshaus, William D.

During the 1960’s, the public became concerned with the environmental degradation resulting from highways, power plants, water projects, and other government-related activities. It became clear that decisions for the implementation of these projects were being made on economic grounds, with little consideration of the environmental impacts. Public concern was galvanized into action during a series of battles that involved construction of Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam, building of the supersonic transport, drilling for oil in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, and many other environmental issues. As public pressure intensified, passage of NEPA was assured.

NEPA’s purpose was simply to force all federal agencies to include environmental concerns in their planning and decision-making processes. The act begins with a policy statement, followed by a requirement that agencies prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for any major federal action that may significantly affect the environment. Finally, the act created the Council on Environmental Quality Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. (CEQ), which publishes regulations detailing the procedures that should be followed when preparing an EIS. Although each federal agency also has its own set of EIS preparation guidelines, the CEQ regulations are the most important guidance for EIS preparers.

The scope of activities subject to NEPA is broad. In addition to projects directly sponsored by federal agencies, projects that utilize federal funding or require a federal permit are subject to NEPA. Thus, many activities sponsored by private parties and local governments also fall within NEPA’s reach. Also, the law is not limited to actual construction projects but also covers policies, programs, and plans involving the federal government. Thus, an offshore oil-leasing program or a timber clear-cutting policy might be subject to NEPA. Certain minor, routine actions are covered by a single EIS, or are exempted categorically from the process altogether (for example, permitting for small amounts of fill in floodplains).

The environmental assessment process required by NEPA emphasizes public comments and interagency coordination: Communication with affected agencies is required at the beginning of the process, public hearings must be held, and responses to all substantive comments received in public hearings must be made. Each federal agency is responsible for preparing EISs on its projects, involving the public, and alerting other government agencies to the proposal. The project is also supposed to be coordinated with state and local land-use and comprehensive plans.

There are several other important features of NEPA, as specified in the CEQ regulations. One feature is its emphasis on consideration of alternatives. The EIS is to be written without any bias toward a particular course of action; rather, it should examine a wide range of alternatives, including the option of not building the project at all. The scope of impacts to be considered is broad. The term “environmental impact” refers to social, cultural, and economic impacts as well as to effects on the natural environment. Environmental costs and benefits that cannot easily be quantified are specifically required to be included in the EIS. Finally, the EIS should cover long-range and short-range effects, cumulative effects of the proposed action and related actions, and impacts indirectly caused by the activity as well as those directly connected to it.

The CEQ regulations delineate a mandatory assessment procedure. The first step is an internal evaluation by the agency proposing the action (the “lead agency”) to determine whether an environmental assessment is needed or not. This is a complex task: A host of other federal laws require federal permits or provide funds for state, local, or private activities, depending on the specific nature of the project under consideration.

Provisions of laws regarding endangered species, historic and archaeologic preservation, wetlands protection, farmland preservation, air quality, and toxic waste disposal, among other things are often involved and must be addressed in the EIS if they are relevant to the project. The determination centers around the judgment of whether the federal involvement is major and whether the activity may affect the environment significantly. Staff members tend to prepare an assessment if there is any question regarding the need for it, as numerous court cases have shown that it is better to prepare one when it is not needed than to fail to prepare one that is needed.

An interdisciplinary team of experts, often a consulting firm, is formed to prepare the document. This group organizes the scoping process, in which the alternative actions are presented to the public for comment and circulated to any affected private groups or government agencies. The most significant environmental issues are identified during this phase of the work.

The EIS documents are then prepared and circulated for review and comment. Public hearings are held, and the documents are revised in accordance with the comments received. A final EIS is then issued, and a decision regarding how to proceed is made. For projects with less significant effects, this process can be shortened, and a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) is issued instead. NEPA does not require that the most environmentally beneficial alternative be selected, only that the full range of impacts be considered and mitigated as much as possible.

Specifically, the following sections are required for a full environmental impact statement: a description of the proposed alternatives, their backgrounds and purpose, a description of the affected environment, the identification of possible adverse and beneficial impacts, proposals for actions to mitigate the impacts, the identification of adverse impacts that cannot be avoided, a description of irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources, an explanation of the relationship between short-term use of the environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long-term productivity, a cost-benefit analysis, and a recommendation regarding whether to proceed, and what mitigating actions should be required.

Topics normally included in the impacts identification section include air quality, water quality and quantity, wildlife and endangered species, historic and archaeologic resources, land use, transportation, utilities, population, economy, flooding, drainage, waste disposal, vegetation, and any project-specific impacts such as handling of radioactive materials or aircraft noise.


NEPA was the first comprehensive environmental legislation in the world. Its provisions have formed the basis for nearly all other impact assessment laws, including the European Economic Community (EEC) Directive that has guided European assessment efforts in recent years.

NEPA has been refined and tested in more than one thousand court cases. Although the court cases have significantly expanded the scope of the regulations governing compliance with NEPA, the law itself has never been amended. This is a testimony to the quality of the original legislation, since amendments to other environmental laws occur regularly in response to problems with their implementation.

This long-term experience has produced divided views of the results of NEPA. Opponents believe that the process has merely added to the federal bureaucracy, unnecessarily delaying projects and raising their costs. The EIS process is costly and time-consuming. It has nearly destroyed the nuclear power industry in the United States, and has delayed many other projects for years.

Supporters contend that NEPA has produced development that is more environmentally compatible, and may have even prevented some environmental disasters (for example, widespread use of nuclear power). The greatest impact of NEPA has occurred in the changes in thinking it has institutionalized in the federal government. Many environmentally damaging projects are now shelved before ever being seriously considered, because agency employees are aware of the requirements of NEPA and know that the projects would not be approved. Even more proposals are significantly modified in the earliest design stages in order to reduce their environmental effects. These changes are very difficult to document, since they involve actions that occur before proposals are made public; however, there is little doubt that the law has significantly reduced the environmental damage caused by projects under its jurisdiction.

Most authorities would agree that this law has caused drastic changes in the way that projects subject to it are designed, located, and built. It has also greatly increased public participation and interagency involvement in project planning and decision making.

Many states have passed their own versions of NEPA to cover projects that are exempt from NEPA itself. These state laws often contain stricter provisions than the parent legislation. In California, the scope of the law, which applies to private development as well as government-sponsored projects, has exacerbated the conflict between these interests, with developers contending that the law requires significant increases in housing cost, and environmentalists responding that these costs are justified in view of the damage inflicted on the environment by development.

The weakest parts of NEPA are its nebulous requirements regarding cost effectiveness and its lack of enforcement provisions for mitigating actions. Enforcement is essentially the responsibility of private citizens and interest groups who have the time to monitor the situation after federal involvement has ended. Additionally, since much mitigating action must be taken by local governments, political pressures may prevent the promised actions from actually occurring. For example, in many instances, rezoning of property in high aircraft-noise zones to prevent incompatible land-uses from appearing has either not been done, or has been done but later rescinded. These difficulties aside, NEPA ranks as one of the most effective environmental laws in the country. Environmental policy, U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (1969)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Richard N. L. Environmental Policy and Administrative Change: Implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1976. This book evaluates the degree of environmental protection achieved by NEPA in the first five years of its existence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. Andrews provides a thorough history of environmental“policies” in the United States that began, as he argues, hundreds of years ago and not, as many claim, at the beginning of the 1970’s. Appropriate for students of as well as specialists in environmental history and policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bass, Ronald E., Albert I. Herson, and Kenneth M. Bogdan. The NEPA Book: A Step-by-step Guide on How to Comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. Point Arena, Calif.: Solano Press Books, 2001. A 475-page legal handbook on National Environmental Policy Act compliance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burchell, R. W., and David Listokin. The Environmental Impact Handbook. New Brunswick, N.J.: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University, 1975. This book, written for general readers, guides citizen groups in how to conduct their own impact assessments for use as a double check of the work done by government agencies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collin, Robert W. The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning up America’s Act. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Provides a history of the Environmental Protection Agency and its powers to regulate environmental policy, including NEPA. Discusses notable cases, controversies, and the EPA’s future, and provides a chronology of key events in the agency’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Creighton, James L. The Public Involvement Manual. Washington, D.C.: Information Resources Press, 1979. A valuable resource for the student of citizen participation in the impact assessment process, this book gives examples of successful and failed attempts to involve the public, as well as guidelines for achieving productive participation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eckstein, Otto. Water-resource Development: The Economics of Project Evaluation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. A valuable tool despite its age, this book gives details on how to calculate the economic costs and benefits of water projects. An interesting case study in how impacts were assessed before passage of NEPA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Emmett B. The Environmental Impact Statement Process and Environmental Law. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press, 2000. A brief but comprehensive handbook to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and subsequent legislation. Includes an introductory chapter on NEPA, discuss the processes involved in filing environmental impact statements, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ortolano, Leonard. Environmental Planning and Decision Making. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984. A brief overview of the basics of NEPA. Compares environmental regulations at the state level and in several other nations.

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Categories: History