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July 18, 2006

EMS to the NEPA Rescue!

On Monday James Connaughton, Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, issued a Federal Register notice [PDF] of a "proposed guide" — Aligning the Complementary processes of Environmental Management Systems and the National Environmental Policy Act [PDF].

The proposed guide promotes EMS as a remedy to the governments' long-standing inability to "address the full range of ongoing activities (and products and services) … with the intent to continually improve environmental performance." And all this time I thought that was the intent of NEPA compliance. The CEQ has long stressed the importance of programmatic to site-specific linkages, connected actions, cumulative effects, and more.

One way to view the notice and guide is that CEQ is taking the next step along the road to better compliance with NEPA. Another, darker way to view the notice and guide is that the federal government is taking yet another step along the path of process gridlock. As we opined earlier on our Forest Environmental Management Systems blog, there are three EMS paths forward:

  • EMS buries the Forest Sevice—in process and "paper,"
  • The Forest Service buries EMS, or
  • EMS transforms Forest Service culture to adopt adaptive management.
Which path will be taken is still a significant question.

Let's pursue the latter path a bit. Adaptive Management is a remarkable idea, and stands a reasonable chance of transforming (for the better) both landscapes and institutions. The Resilience Alliance, for example, is dedicated to that particular proposition.

But there are serious omissions in the description of adaptive management in the "proposed guide," relative to the way adaptive management is commonly framed. In particular in the proposed guide, adaptive management is framed in the narrow confines of what is referred to as a "'predict-mitigate-implement-monitor-adapt' model." that "adjusts actions to foster desired outcomes and reduce undesired ones." Nowhere to be found is the 'surprise, uncertainty, novelty and ignorance' side of the adaptive management endeavor. This is a serious, perhaps fatal omission in the guide.

To gain a better perspective on the two-part harmony of managing both the expected and the unexpected, take a look at, e.g. Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected.., Lance H. Gunderson and C.S. Holling (eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, and T.F.H. Allen, Joseph A. Tainter, and Thomas W. Hoekstra, Supply-side Sustainability.

Will EMS prove to be the saving-grace for NEPA compliance? Or will EMS prove up on an anonymous USFS employee's (who came with EMS experience from the private sector) remark that: "EMS is an expensive excuse to pay consultants to tell us what we already know." The jury is out.

Posted by Dave on July 18, 2006 at 01:50 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Dave

I find several weaknesses in the "proposed guide." First, as mentioned in the post, I believe that adaptive management is wrongly framed.

Second, I believe that the alleged NEPA failings are better fixed by following CEQ guidelines for Programmatic to Site-Specific linkups. Suggesting EMS as a White Knight is a bit of a stretch given EMS' track records.

Third, as related to the second concern just above, the guide says (p.4) "The NEPA process generally approaches environmental management decisions on a case-by-case basis, and mainly focuses on identifying and mitigating 'significant' environmental impacts." I would amend the statement by adding the parenthetical words "and wrongly" just before "approaches." So that the statement would read: "The NEPA process generally (and wrongly) approaches environmental management decisions on a case-by-case basis, and mainly focuses on identifying and mitigating 'significant' environmental impacts."

Fourth, the "guide" suggests that "environmental aspects" (e.g. emissions to air, discharges to water) may be considered "cause" in "cause-and-effect relationships involving natural resources." I disagree. I believe that EMS "environmental aspects" might be better thought of as "indicators" of impacts, or "symptoms" of problems. I can't wrap my mind around the idea of environmental aspects as "causes."

Finally, something that isn't necessarily a weakness although it might be—let's call it complexity: Twice on page 2, the guide talks about environmental issues: 1) "… In the EMS context, [environmental aspect] information is used to not only assess environmental issues, but more so, to actively manage them. …", 2) "… Thus, the focus of an EMS is ultimately on the active management of environmental issues …."

The ISO 14001 frames things differently I believe, stating as introduction: "Organizations … are increasingly concerned with achieving and demonstrating sound environmental performance by controlling the impacts of their activities, products and services on the environment…." In the process of managing activities/impact bundles, recognition of "environmental issues" is necessary. So too, ultimately is management of environmental issues. As I understand the ISO 14001, the focus of the EMS is on improving environmental performance of activities/impacts. There is no doubt a linkage to improving the process for managing environmental issues. But it is a focus left more to inference than to explicit process direction in the ISO 14001.

Dave | Jul 18, 2006 2:49:47 PM

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