Cumulative Impacts in Marine and Coastal Systems: State of the Law

Coastal and marine ecosystems face escalating pressure due to widespread human activities. Despite legal mandates requiring resource managers to analyze the combined impacts of these activities on the environment, cumulative impacts are increasing unabated. To understand the legal and policy challenges practitioners face when developing and reviewing cumulative impacts we analyzed the cumulative impacts requirements of the federal National Environmental Policy Act and California’s Environmental Quality Act.

In our article, It All Adds Up: Enhancing Ocean Health by Improving Cumulative Impacts Analyses in Environmental Review Documents, we synthesized the current legal boundaries of cumulative impacts assessment and identified areas of flexibility for new approaches to cumulative impacts management. Three key legal challenges emerged from our review: (1) analyzing impacts at the correct geographic scale, (2) selecting the appropriate baseline for analysis, and (3) accounting for all relevant impacts. We identified opportunities to tackle these challenges and consulted with our team of scientists, policy analysts, and lawyers to develop a comprehensive set of recommendations reflecting the best available science and feasible within the confines of existing law.

According to the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, It All Adds Up “epitomizes the kind of interdisciplinary research that is the future of environmental law. By making informed and realistic policy recommendations that are rooted in both solid legal and scientific research, It All Adds Up provides a tool that policymakers, scientists, and lawyers can all use to advance their understanding of how cumulative impact analysis functions today, and how it can be improved to better serve its function of protecting coastal ecosystems.”

In parallel, our Center for Ocean Solutions research team also assessed the scientific and practice-based approaches to conducting cumulative impact assessments. While the solutions to these complex challenges will require extensive coordination and integration across disciplines, they also provide an opportunity to better ocean health.

Whales swim by a large oil tanker. Photo Credit: Green Flash Productions, Flickr Creative Commons.

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