Federal Environmental Impact Statements: Overly Inflated Needs Result in Needless Environmental Harm

By Steinhoff, Gordon | Electronic Green Journal, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Federal Environmental Impact Statements: Overly Inflated Needs Result in Needless Environmental Harm


Steinhoff, Gordon, Electronic Green Journal


According to federal regulations, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must include a statement of the purpose of, and need for, the proposed action. Unfortunately, the regulations do not specify how to determine the need. Typically, the declared need for a proposed action includes items that are not genuine needs. They are necessary conditions for achieving goals that are merely desired. The result of such overly inflated needs is, literally, needless environmental harm. The author presents criteria for identifying needs that have been developed by philosophers David Braybrooke and Garrett Thomson. These criteria are useful for gauging how far federal agencies are from a defensible conception of need. The author develops a principle that federal agencies should follow as they formulate the need for a proposed action in an EIS. If adopted, this principle would help eliminate overly inflated needs for proposed actions, leading to more environmentally sensitive decisions.

According to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), federal actions that may significantly harm the environment must be evaluated in an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal regulations implementing NEPA specify the required structure of these documents. An EIS must describe the proposed action. It must compare the expected environmental impacts of the proposed action with those of reasonable alternatives. Also, an EIS must include a statement of the purpose of, and need for, the proposed action (Council on Environmental Quality, 1987, sections 1502.10-1502.16).

Unfortunately, the regulations do not specify how to determine the need for a proposed action. Typically, the declared need for a proposed action includes items that are not genuine needs. They are necessary conditions for achieving goals that are merely desired. The necessary conditions are missing at the time the action is planned. These items are "needs" only in the sense that they are missing and are needed to achieve the desired goals. For example, the declared need for an airport expansion project may include economic development of the city in which the airport is located.1 The economic development is not a genuine need. It is a necessary condition, missing at the time the action is planned, for achieving the desired goal of economic prosperity. Economic prosperity is merely desired; it is itself not a genuine need. That the declared need for a proposed action includes such necessary conditions is an extremely important problem. The combined "purpose and need" determines which alternatives must be evaluated in an EIS. According to federal agencies and the courts, there is no requirement to evaluate an alternative that does not meet the declared purpose and need.2 The result of federal agencies inflating the need for a proposed action by including within it such necessary conditions is that alternatives that would provide genuine needs with little environmental impact are not evaluated and have no chance of being selected. They are automatically ruled out. Agencies typically select the proposed action over the alternatives that are evaluated based on how much better the proposed action meets the purpose and need. Far too often the environment is needlessly harmed.

In this paper, the author discusses two EISs that illustrate this practice. One is an EIS recently issued by the Federal Highway Administration concerning a controversial bridge project; the other is an EIS recently issued by the U.S. Forest Service concerning a controversial timber sale. In both documents, the declared need for the proposed action consists of items that are not genuine needs. They are necessary conditions for achieving goals that are merely desired, necessary conditions that are currently missing. In each document, the agency evaluates less-harmful alternatives but rejects them using the overly inflated need. The author presents criteria for identifying needs that have been developed by philosophers David Braybrooke and Garrett Thomson. …

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Federal Environmental Impact Statements: Overly Inflated Needs Result in Needless Environmental Harm
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