It’s helpful to think of NEPA as a ski slope with beginner, intermediate, and expert terrain. The rules are different for each.
Let’s start with the small projects. Like beginner terrain, there’s not much potential risk or consequence here. CEQ (or Congress) gives each agency a list of activities they can exclude from in-depth analysis. This is called a Categorical Exclusion, or a CE, and it is the most streamlined, least intensive process, kinda like cruising down a bunny slope. But watch out: Categorical Exclusions also have the fewest opportunities for the public to get engaged.
What if it’s a bigger project, but the agency suspects it won’t have a “significant” environmental impact? That’s intermediate terrain, the blue square of projects, and they get an Environmental Assessment, or an EA. This is basically a way for the government to decide if a more in-depth analysis is warranted or not. The EA is a bit a crux. It’s a moment of truth. The public gets to weigh in, but it’s meant to be a concise document that will prompt one of two things. Either the analysis shows that there’s no significant impact and the project can move forward, or the project requires a lot more environmental analysis, and then we venture into expert terrain.
The expert terrain of the National Environmental Policy Act is called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. This is the document federal agencies must prepare if they are proposing a “major” action that will “significantly” impact the human environment. Just like skiing a big line in the backcountry, there are many stages and steps to take in planning a project like this through the EIS process.
It begins with a Notice of Intent. (See that couloir in the distance? We want to ski it.) Then the agency moves into a Scoping process. (Who’s got beta on that line? We want to talk to them.) Just like there’s more than one way to ski a line, there’s also more than one way to pursue a project, and the National Environmental Policy Act requires the government to consider several different alternatives. (Do we climb straight up the gut and ski it? Or do we hike around and drop in from above? What are the pros and cons of each?) They develop these alternatives with the information, relevant science, and public comments gathered during Scoping.
After the government has collected a bunch of information and science about the project, they publish a draft EIS and ask for public comment on that. This would be like you posting a photo to Facebook of the line you want to ski and asking for more opinions about whether and how you should ski it. After you’ve gotten all that feedback, you’re probably going to want to think about it and consider the different points of view, right? The government does the same thing.
Finally, the morning arrives to ski your big line. The government publishes the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which includes their response to all the comments they received, along with a draft Record of Decision. For some agencies, like the Forest Service, the Final EIS offers one last chance to object on the project before the government publishes the final Record of Decision. Are you ready to drop in yet?