President's Council on Environmental Quality

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) was created by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969 during the first term of President Richard Nixon. The primary role of the council is to advise the President on environmental policy. Because it is limited to an advisory role, CEQ does not have a highly visible public profile. It is composed of three members, including a chairperson, who are appointed by the president with the advise and consent of the Senate. CEQ's importance in environmental policy has fluctuated significantly over the years of its existence.

The NEPA is the federal law that requires federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EISs) prior to undertaking or approving any action that might have a significant effect on the quality of the environment. In adopting NEPA, Congress realized that a wide range of federal activity had an impact on environmental quality. In practice, one of the most important functions of CEQ is to oversee the implementation of the EIS process by other federal agencies. Initially, the oversight took the form of guidelines for implementing the EIS process; the guidelines were advisory and not mandatory. In 1979, at the request of President Jimmy Carter, the CEQ issued mandatory regulations that had to be followed by all agencies. Since there had been many court cases interpreting the language of NEPA, the CEQ regulations essentially codified the case law created by the courts. Generally, government regulations interpret and explain confusing statutory language, but unfortunately they themselves are often very confusing. CEQ's regulations under NEPA are an exception to this rule; they are written in clear and concise language. The extensive and clearly written regulations are most likely a factor in the reduced number of court cases filed under NEPA since 1979.

The CEQ was required by law to provide the president with an annual report on the state of the nation's environment. The report would establish the status and condition of the natural environment, the current and foreseeable environmental trends, the adequacy of natural resources for fulfilling the nation's needs, a review of other relevant programs and activities of government and nongovernment organizations, and a program for remedying existing environmental deficiencies. Throughout the 1970s, CEQ's annual report to the president was a treasure trove of information for citizens interested in environmental issues. Since then, CEQ has generally been underfunded, and as a consequence, its annual reports have shrunk in size and are not issued in a timely fashion.

Finally, CEQ acts as a referee in disputes between federal agencies implementing various aspects of NEPA. Although the statute assigns other general, environmentally related tasks to CEQ, the three noted above are the most important and most visible.

CEQ has had a checkered existence. Though active and visible through 1980, President Ronald Regan saw little need for it and sought to eliminate the CEQ. Failing in this endeavor, the President cut CEQ's funding by over 80 percent and failed to appoint any members to the council until the latter years of his presidency. President Bill Clinton prepared legislation that would eliminate CEQ, and transfer its functions to a new cabinet -level Department of the Environment. That legislation failed too. In 1995 the president rejuvenated the CEQ. Its greatest visibility in the Clinton years evolved when its chair, Kathleen McGinty, became the Executive Director of the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD). The PCSD developed, and even began the implementation of, a broad plan for leading the country toward a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle. Though no activity on the part of CEQ may be currently apparent, President George W. Bush appointed a CEQ chairperson in 2001.


Internet Resource

Executive Office of the President, Council on Environmental Quality. Available from .

James P. Karp

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