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The Reverse Environmental Impact Statement

The traditional environmental impact statement (“EIS”) examines the effect of a proposed project, such as a construction project, on the environment. However, various federal, state and local statutes and rules are now looking in the opposite direction – at how environment changes might affect a project.

In an article in the New York Law Journal, dated March 8, 2012, “Reverse Environmental Impact Analysis: Effect of Climate Change on Projects,” Michael B. Gerrard, a distinguished professor at Columbia Law School, examines what he terms “reverse environmental impact analysis.” For example, if during the expected lifetime of a proposed building, the building site may be endangered by sea level rise, should this be disclosed in an EIS?

In a recent case involving a proposed mixed-use real estate development project in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles County, the court invalidated recent guidelines to the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), which is similar to New York’s SEQRA. The California guidelines required that the EIS (or EIR as it is referred to California) analyze any significant environmental impacts the proposed project might cause. In striking down the guidance, the California Court of Appeal held in Ballona Wetlands Land Trust v. City of Los Angeles (November 2011) that this “reverse” analysis was inconsistent with the CEQA statute. The court found that the purpose of the EIS was to identify significant effects of a project on the environment, not the significant effects of the environment on the project. The issue is now before the California Supreme Court, where the case is expected to receive significant attention.

At the federal level, the Counsel on Environmental Quality, which was created by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (“NEPA”), issued a draft guidance in February 2010 urging consideration of the effects of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions on future projects. For example, if climate change studies were to demonstrate that a proposed airport will be underwater in twenty years, the EIS should contain that information.

On the state level, New York DEC in October 2010, issued a policy on climate change directing DEC’s staff to incorporate climate change adapation strategies into DEC programs and activities, as appropriate. Finally, at the local level, New York City’s Environmental Quality Review (“CEQR”) procedure now mandates consideration of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from projects.

The take-away is that real estate developers will increasingly be required to consider  in their environmental impact statements how changes brought about by climate change may impact their proposed projects down the road.  Ultimately, legal challenges to regulations requiring reverse environmental impact statements will be turned aside and there will be a paradigm shift in how EISs are performed.