CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) have similar goals: to promote informed decisions regarding projects and programs that may affect the environment and taking action to reduce those potential environmental impacts to the extent feasible. Both pieces of legislation require an environmental review process for certain actions (i.e., analyses and documentation), and their implementing regulations are designed to avoid duplication among multiple governmental layers of review. CEQA applies to discretionary projects in California, while NEPA applies specifically to actions that require an approval, permit, or funding from a federal agency.  

CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act)

Passed in 1970, CEQA applies to all California state, regional or local public agencies. CEQA’s requirements apply to both public and private projects that require a discretionary approval from a governmental agency, as well as activities undertaken by a governmental agency, and activities financed in whole or in part by a governmental agency.

CEQA serves to:

  • Disclose to the public the significant environmental effects of a proposed discretionary project, through the preparation of an initial study, negative declaration, mitigated negative declaration, or environmental impact report.
  • Prevent or minimize damage to the environment through development of project alternatives, mitigation measures, and mitigation monitoring.
  • Disclose to the public the agency decision making process utilized to approve discretionary projects through findings and statements of overriding consideration.
  • Enhance public participation in the environmental review process through scoping meetings, public notice, public review, hearings, and the judicial process.
  • Improve interagency coordination through early consultations, scoping meetings, notices of preparation, and State Clearinghouse review.

State and local public agencies must comply with CEQA before making a discretionary approval of a project. Compliance can be met by determining a project is exempt from CEQA, preparing an environmental analysis, typically a negative declaration (ND), mitigated negative declaration (MND) or environmental impact report (EIR), or utilizing one of CEQA’s many streamlining procedures.

NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act)

When NEPA was signed into law on January 1, 1970, it was the first major environmental law in the United States. The law requires agencies to consider and disclose the effects of their actions on the quality of the human environment and any reasonable alternatives before deciding on whether and how to proceed with a project. The NEPA review (a process involving environmental analyses and documentation) ensures that decisions are better informed and allows for greater public involvement. NEPA applies to federal actions including broad actions, such as establishing or updating land management plans, programs, or policies, as well as specific projects. For private actions, NEPA applies to any federal decisions on approvals, permits, or funding required for the action.

NEPA states that cooperation shall include:

(1) Joint planning processes.

(2) Joint environmental research and studies.

(3) Joint public hearings (except where otherwise provided by statute).

(4) Joint environmental assessments.

Federal agencies are administered to cooperate in fulfilling the requirements of state and local laws and ordinances where those requirements are in addition to federal requirements by preparing one document that complies with all applicable laws.

What happens when CEQA and NEPA both apply?  

Some projects will require discretionary approvals from a California public agency as well as federal agency approvals, permits, or funding that also trigger the application of NEPA. In situations where both regulations apply, a joint CEQA/NEPA document may be required and coordination with both the California and federal agency will be necessary. However, federal agencies may also enter into memoranda of understanding with the State of California or with local agencies to facilitate the coordination of NEPA and CEQA reviews and reduce to eliminate the need for federal agency involvement. For example, under a MOU, Caltrans has sole responsibility for compliance with NEPA and CEQA.

What is the difference between CEQA and NEPA? 

While NEPA and CEQA have similar goals regarding projects and operations that may affect the environment, CEQA is generally recognized as having a broader reach and impact than NEPA. CEQA is both procedural and substantive while NEPA is largely a procedural requirement. NEPA applies to federal agency decisions on “proposals for legislation and other major federal actions” (42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(c)). Federal actions include actions with the potential for environmental impacts. Such actions may include adoption and approval of official policy, formal plans, programs, and specific federal projects. NEPA also applies in cases where an agency is exercising its discretion in deciding whether and how to exercise its authority over an otherwise non-federal project (for example, issuing a permit or approving funding).

CEQA applies strictly to California state and local agency decisions to carry out or approve “discretionary projects… including, but not limited to, the enactment and amendment of zoning ordinances, the issuance of zoning variances, the issuance of conditional use permits, and the approval of tentative subdivision maps unless the project is exempt from this division” (Cal. Pub. Resources Code, § 21080). CEQA broadly defines “project” to include “the whole of an action, which has a potential for resulting in either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment” (CEQA Guidelines, § 15378). Therefore, while localized, CEQA may apply to a broader range of projects than NEPA does.

To find out more, read about CEQA and NEPA compliance.

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