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Principles of Cumulative Effects Analysis

Last Page Update: July 29, 2010

These principles come from Considering Cumulative Effects Under the National Environmental Policy Act (CEQ, January 1977) (http://ceq.hss.doe.gov/nepa/ccenepa/ccenepa.htm)

1. Cumulative effects are caused by the aggregate of past, present and reasonably foreseeable future actions.

The effects of a proposed action on a given resource, ecosystem, and human community include the present and future effects added to the effects that have taken place in the past. Such cumulative effects must also be added to effects (past, present, and future) caused by all other actions that affect the same resource.


2. Cumulative effects are the total effect, including both direct and indirect effects on a given resource, ecosystem, and human community of ail actions taken, no matter who (federal, nonfederal, or private) has taken the actions.

Individual effects from disparate activities may add up or interact to cause additional effects not apparent when looking at the individual effects one at a time. The additional effects contributed by actions unrelated to the proposed action must be included in the analysis of cumulative effects.


3. Cumulative effects need to be analyzed in terms of the specific resource, ecosystem, and human community being affected.

Environmental effects are often evaluated from the perspective of the proposed action. Analyzing cumulative effects requires focusing on the resource, ecosystem, and human community that may be affected and developing an adequate understanding of how the resources are susceptible to effects.


4. It is not practical to analyze the cumulative effects of an action on the universe; the list of environmental effects must focus on those that are truly meaningful.

For cumulative effects analysis to help the decision maker and inform interested parties, it must be limited through scoping to effects that can be evaluated meaningfully. The boundaries for evaluating cumulative effects should be expanded to the point at which the resource is no longer affected significantly or the effects are no longer of interest to affected parties.


5. Cumulative effects on a given resource, ecosystem, and human community are rarely aligned with political or administrative boundaries.

Resources typically are demarcated according to agency responsibilities, county lines, grazing allotments, or other administrative boundaries. Because natural and sociocultural resources are not usually so aligned, each political entity actually manages only a piece of the affected resource or ecosystem. Cumulative effects analysis on natural systems must use natural ecological boundaries and analysis of human communities must use actual sociocultural boundaries to ensure including all effects.


6. Cumulative effects may result from the accumulation of similar effects or the synergistic interaction of different effects.

Repeated actions may cause effects to build up through simple addition (more and more of the same type of effect), and the same or different actions may produce effects that interact to produce cumulative effects greater than the sum of the effects.


7. Cumulative effects may last for many years beyond the life of the action that caused the effects.

Some actions cause damage lasting far longer than the life of the action itself (e.g., acid mine drainage, radioactive waste contamination, species extinctions). Cumulative effects analysis needs to apply the best science and forecasting techniques to assess potential catastrophic consequences in the future.


 8. Each affected resource, ecosystem, and human community must be analyzed in terms of the capacity to accommodate additional effects, based on its own time and space parameters.

Analysts tend to think in terms of how the resource, ecosystem, and human community will be modified given the action’s development needs. The mast effective cumulative effects analysis focuses on what is needed to ensure long-term productivity or sustainability of the resource.