The government first decides that it wants to do a “project” of some kind. That “project” can be something that the government is going to do itself, like build a new road, or it can be something that a private party is planning to do, but for which the private party needs governmental approval. If someone wants to build a factory on some rural land, that person will probably need a permit from the governmental agency that has jurisdiction over the land. If the government says, “go,” then it is really the government, not just the private party, that is taking a significant action.
Once it is clear that there is a “project” involved (as just outlined), the government needs to ask whether or not the proposed project mightresult in a significant adverse environmental impact. If there might be a significant impact, then the government needs to keep thinking, and move to the next step. If, however, the government determines that no adverse environmental impact is possible, then the government doesn’t have to think any further. The government can just move ahead with the project, since the project won’t have any negative environmental effects.
If the proposed project mighthave one or more significant environmental impacts, then the government needs to prepare an analysis of what those impacts might be. The government, in other words, needs to prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS—NEPA) or a Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR—CEQA).
Once the Draft environmental document has been prepared (a Draft EIS or a Draft EIR), the government then needs to let the public comment on the draft, giving members of the public no fewer than thirty days to review and submit any comments they might have. Longer review periods are often provided.
At the end of the review period, the government must review all the comments received on the draft, and then respond to those comments, with the responses including detail sufficient to address the issues raised by the comments.
The “Final” environmental document (a Final EIS or a Final EIR) will include the original draft document, plus any comments received on that draft, plus responsesto all the comments received. Generally, a Final EIS or EIR will also include a listing of various mitigation measuresthat would eliminate or reduce, to the greatest degree feasible, any adverse environmental impacts that the analysis has identified.
At this stage, the governmental decision-making body is possessed of what NEPA and CEQA call an “informational document,” alerting the government to any and all potentially significant adverse environmental impacts of the project being proposed. The Final EIS or EIR, in other words, documents the “thinking” process that will now inform the government’s ultimate decision. The EIS or EIR doesn’t mandate a specific decision but the process does insure that the governmental agency making the decision has an opportunity really to understand the environmental impacts of what is being proposed. The decision makers are legally required to consult the Final EIS or EIR before making a decision on the proposed project. If the project review has been carried out according to CEQA, the governmental agency has to do more than consider the final environmental review document; in California, the government agency is legally required to incorporate any measures that would eliminate or mitigate any identified environmental impacts, if those mitigation measures are determined to be feasible.
By the time this process is complete, the governmental agency will definitely have “thought” about the project. If the agency decides to go ahead, it will do so with full information on any adverse impacts that may have been identified. Members of the public, who will have been involved in the process, will usually be at the meeting where the final decision is made, and if the impacts are adverse, and the government goes ahead anyway, the elected officials responsible are almost certainly going to hear from the public, and the public is likely to be upset.
* In fact, I was amazed to find, as I sought for online references to the "Ready, Fire, Aim" phrase, that there is a self-help book that advocates this principle. The book was written by a young tech guy named Michael Masterson, and he thinks that applying the "ready, fire, aim" principle is a way to get rich. I haven't read the book, but it seems like the advice is a species of that "move fast and break things" approach to policy making, and reflects the insufferable arrogance of those really, really rich guys who think that money equals intelligence.
(2) - https://www.amazon.com/Ready-Fire-Aim-Zero-Million/dp/B0014WYZYA