FAA Changes the Rules for National Environmental Policy Act Review

Inspired by Congressional intervention, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has begun the process of revising and reorganizing FAA Order 1050.1E, “Environmental Impact: Policies and Procedures” in a new Order, 1050.1F (by the same name).  78 Fed.Reg. 49596-49600 (August 14, 2013).  That in itself would not be particularly notable, except for the importance of the changes that are being made, and their significance for both airport operators and the communities around airports that are the direct recipients of both the disbenefit of the environmental impacts of airport projects, and the potential benefit of the adequate environmental review of those impacts.

The most important of the potential revisions to Order 1050.1E involves FAA’s relief from the burdens of environmental review granted by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, H.R. 658 (112th) (“FMRA”).  Specifically, two legislatively created categorical exclusions are added in 1050.1F, paragraphs 5-6.5q and 5-6.5r, Exemption from NEPA Review which basically give a free pass to changes to air traffic procedures throughout the country.
 

These are: (1) Area Navigation/Required Navigation Performance (“RNP”) procedures proposed for “core” (large hub) airports, or any medium or small hub airports located in the same metroplex, and for RNP procedures proposed at 35 non-core airports to be selected by the Administrator; and (2) for any navigation performance or other performance based navigational procedure “developed, certified, published or implemented that in the determination of the Administrator would result in unreasonable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and noise on a per flight basis as compared to aircraft operations that following existing instrument flight rules . . . in the same airspace irrespective of the altitude.”  78 Fed.Reg. 49599 [emphasis added].

In other words, Congress has exempted FAA from the responsibility to review the environmental impacts, and specifically those of noise and air quality, of the new GPS based procedures being implemented throughout the United States.  The rationale for this exemption is clearly to pave the way for the modernization of the air traffic system with satellite based technology.  The result, however, is less benign.  To the extent these procedures allow for the increasing geographical focus of arrivals and departures, their impacts are also increasingly focused over certain communities.  This means that specific populations are, or will, experience far more intense noise and air quality effects from arrivals and departures, while others will be relieved.  Ironically, this is the very change in the distribution of impacts that the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) was enacted to disclose. 

Finally, the good news is that, aside from excusing the RNP projects from environmental review, new Order 1050.1F also elevates certain additional categories of projects to EIS status.  For example, Order 1050.1F requires an EIS for, among other things: (1) location of a new commercial service airport in a MSA; (2) a new runway to accommodate air carrier aircraft at a commercial service airport in a MSA; and (3) major runway extensions. 

In summary, new FAA Order 1050.1F appears to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor in smoothing FAA’s path to project approval by eliminating the hard bumps in the process of environmental review.  Interested parties may submit comments by September 30, 2013 by internet at http://www.regulations.gov; by mail at U.S. Department of Transportation, Docket Operations, M-30, West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC  20590-0001; and by fax at (202)493-2251.
 

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