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Senate Committee Pushes McNamee FERC Nomination Forward, Driven by Millions in Fossil Fuel Money

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee voted on Tuesday to push the controversial nomination of Bernard McNamee for Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to the full Senate, on a mostly party-line vote.

McNamee currently leads the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, where he helped to roll out Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s failed attempt to bail out the coal and nuclear industries. His resume reads like a who’s who in the fossil fuel industry and the far-right political crowd.

McNamee has deep ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Koch-funded organization that has provided a pipeline of Trump nominees, including the former nominee to the Council For Environmental Quality that even Republicans agreed was unqualified for the job. It was there that McNamee spearheaded “Life: Powered,” a project launched by the group in 2015 “to combat the Obama-era Clean Power Plan,” according to TPPF’s 2017 annual report. He also served as a senior advisor and counsel to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). This past Earth Day, he authored a love letter to fossil fuels that implored Americans to remember how “the responsible use of America’s abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition.”

Joe Manchin joined Republicans in voting for McNamee, 13-10, even in spite of a recent video that shows McNamee criticizing renewable energy and expressing strong support for the sole use of fossil fuels – as well as describing environmental advocacy as “tyranny.” This vote serves to underscore a continuing problem in Washington: that a nominee who, on the record, has showed significant bias toward the fossil fuel industry, is lauded and promoted by Senators to lead the very agency where he is expected to remain impartial.

The 13 Senators who voted in the Committee to move McNamee’s nomination forward have taken a combined total of nearly $10 million from the fossil fuel industry – bought and paid for by an industry that accelerates the climate crisis and only cares about protecting their profits. It is evident that fossil fuel money is both crippling our democracy and destroying our climate, influencing the structural branches of government that regulate our nation’s infrastructure and energy supply.

The key numbers breakdown:

Combined fossil fuel contributions to Senators voting for McNamee: nearly $10,000,000
Average lifetime dirty energy money per Senator voting for McNamee: $755,219
Average lifetime dirty energy money per Senator voting against McNamee: $88,682

That works out to more than 8 times the dirty energy money taken by those voting in favor of McNamee’s nomination than the average of those voting against the clearly fossil-biased pick. Today’s vote moving McNamee’s nomination forward shows that the industry’s grip on Washington politics is still suffocating our democracy. McNamee will go before the Senate next month for a full vote on his nomination, where we will have one more chance to push against the industry’s influence and prevent McNamee from becoming the next Commissioner of FERC.

 

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EPA Clouds Transparency for Environmental Impact Statements

The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to stop the combination of letter and numeral grades for evaluating Environmental Impact Statements prepared by the federal agencies. The two-factor grading system graded both the quality of the analysis and the actual level of environmental impact. This change will dim the transparency of the federal agencies’ work. This new policy will make it much harder for the public or press to judge early-on the seriousness of environmental impacts of the project and the quality of the agencies’ analysis of that impact. There’s a simple analogy: What if we got rid of grades in schools?

Teacher Ben:
“Well class, as you requested, we will no longer grade your final examinations. However, we will continue to put comments in the margins of your exams where we think more work is needed. We will not send a letter grades to your parents but will send them a copy of your final essay with our comments in the margins.”
Who does this help? Bueller?

Since 1984 EPA have evaluated environmental impact statements of federal agencies for both the adequacy of the NEPA documentation and the actual level of environmental impacts. They also make specific comments to the environmental analysis.  They will continue with specific comments but no longer have a clear summary grade.

The EPA website lists the grading options (reprinted before the material is deleted from the EPA website):
EPA has developed a set of criteria for rating a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). EPA rates the draft EIS on an alpha-numeric system and includes the designated rating in EPA’s comment letter. In general, the rating is based on the lead agency’s preferred alternative. The rating system provides a basis upon which EPA makes recommendations to the lead agency for improving the draft EIS. The alphabetical categories listed below signify EPA’s evaluation of the environmental impacts of the proposal: 
LO (Lack of Objections)
EC (Environmental Concerns)
EO (Environmental Objections)
​EU (Environmentally Unsatisfactory)
The numerical categories listed below signify an evaluation of the adequacy of the draft EIS: 
1 (Adequate)
2 (Insufficient Information)
3 (Inadequate)
The rating of the draft EIS consists of one of the category combinations shown below:
LO
EC-1, EC-2
EO-1, EO-2, EO-3
​EU-1, EU-2, EU-3, or 3
https://www.epa.gov/nepa/environmental-impact-statement-rating-system-criteria
(October 26, 2018)
The combined letter-numerical system was simple, edifying and useful to the press and public.

On October 22, however, EPA announced it would end the grading policy. Before announcing this abrupt change of this Reagan Administration policy, EPA did not talk to environmental advocates, project sponsors, states, tribes or other affected groups. EPA did get input from—using my analogy—the students—the federal agencies, who thought dropping the grading system was a swell idea. Better to hide inadequately prepared environmental reviews as well as the seriousness of the likely environmental impacts? Agencies argued that grading was inconsistent among EPA Regions but that issue exists in almost all grading that are not true-false or multiple choice. 

The National Environmental Policy Act is a foundational environmental statute meant to give the public a chance to comment and understand what the federal government is doing an action that may significantly impact the environment or their community. Making this material accessible is very important. The Trump administration and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, evidently think differently. Now, affected communities will not have a heads-up from environmental experts at EPA on the seriousness of the environmental threat unless they trudge through the high technical comments of the EPA and the often-technical language in the environmental review.

EPA is still required by Section 309 of the Clean Air Act to evaluate and send comments on the EISs to the agency responsible. Under law, EPA must still forward projects that would have an unsatisfactory environmental impact to the Council of Environmental Quality but the memo announcing this new policy noted that such a referral would be “rare.” The original plan, outlined in President Trump’s Infrastructure Plan, was to repeal the Clean Air Act provision thereby eliminating both the EPA review and consequently the referral to CEQ for projects that had an unsatisfactory environmental impacts. Removing the grading system is their Option B.

 
Scott Slesinger is Legislative Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  

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An Environmental Audit of Trump’s NAFTA Deal

The NAFTA deal between the U.S. and Mexico would encourage further outsourcing of pollution and jobs, offer special handouts to notorious corporate polluters, lock in fossil fuel dependency, and extend Trump’s polluting legacy for years after he has left office. It not only fails to mention climate change – it would prolong NAFTA’s contribution to the climate crisis. Despite progress on a few fronts, the deal fails to adequately protect wildlife, clean air and water, or the health of communities that NAFTA has exposed to toxic pollution.

During the NAFTA negotiations, leading U.S. environmental groups outlined minimum changes that must be made to NAFTA to halt the deal’s environmental damage. See here for these minimum environmental criteria.  

A review of the text of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada deal reveals that it falls far short of these baseline criteria and would pose significant threats to our air, water, and climate. In short, the deal:

Supports further outsourcing of toxic pollution and jobs: The deal’s lack of binding environmental standards would allow more corporations to evade U.S. environmental policies by shifting jobs and toxic pollution to Mexico, where environmental policies are weaker. For example, the lack of any binding lead pollution standards means that corporations would still enjoy NAFTA’s incentives to dump their lead waste in Mexico, which has contributed to job loss in the U.S. and toxic lead poisoning in border communities.
Denies climate change: The deal fails to even mention climate change. This denialism leaves intact NAFTA’s incentives for corporations to dodge the hard-fought clean energy policies of U.S. states by moving to Mexico, eliminating jobs and perpetuating climate pollution. This climate loophole only reinforces the U.S.’s status as the world’s largest outsourcer of climate pollution.
Rolls back the environmental standards of past trade deals: The deal takes a significant step backwards from the environmental protections included in the last four U.S. trade deals by failing to reinforce a standard set of seven Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) that protect everything from wetlands to sea turtles. The deal includes standard enforcement language for only one of the seven MEAs, while using weak language for two MEAs and failing to even mention four of these essential environmental agreements.
Includes weak environmental terms: The environment chapter is primarily filled with non-binding terms that mirror the weak words of the polluter-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership. For example, the text “recognizes that air pollution is a serious threat to public health,” but then fails to include a single binding rule to reduce the air pollution that NAFTA has exacerbated. Much of the language appears designed to greenwash the deal, not to rectify NAFTA’s threats to wildlife, ecosystems, or clean air and water.
Copies a failed enforcement system: Even the strongest language will only be effective if enforced. The deal essentially replicates the same failed environmental enforcement mechanism from past U.S. trade agreements. Not once has the U.S. used this mechanism in past trade deals to bring a case against a U.S. trade partner for environmental abuses, despite widely documented violations.
Offers a dangerous handout to Chevron and ExxonMobil: The deal makes progress in curtailing the overreaching corporate rights in NAFTA’s “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) system…but then uniquely offers those egregious rights to notorious corporate polluters. This special handout is available to all U.S. oil and gas corporations that have, or may at some point have, government contracts for offshore drilling, fracking, oil and gas pipelines, refineries, or other polluting activities in Mexico. That means, for example, that Chevron and ExxonMobil – the two largest corporate climate polluters in history and repeat users of ISDS – would be allowed to challenge environmental protections in Mexico by relying on the same broad corporate rights that they have used to successfully challenge public interest policies from Ecuador to Canada.
Encourages fracking: The deal preserves a NAFTA rule that effectively bars the U.S. government from determining whether gas exports to Mexico are in the public interest. This automatic gas export guarantee facilitates increased fracking in the U.S., expansion of cross-border gas pipelines, and growing dependency on climate-polluting gas in Mexico.
Offers corporate polluters a new way to weaken environmental policies: The deal’s “good regulatory practices” rules could give corporate polluters a new way to delay, weaken, or halt new environmental regulations. The rules offer corporations extra opportunities to challenge proposed regulations before they are finalized, and to ask that existing regulations be repealed. These deregulatory rules could make it harder to reverse the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks once Trump leaves office, which could extend his polluting legacy for years.

 
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The Royalty Policy Committee: What You Need to Know

Looking to Thursday’s Royalty Policy Committee meeting in Denver, Colorado, one thing that is evidently clear is this “federal committee” is now completely and unapologetically at the beck and call of the oil and gas industry. After guiding the swift passing of recommendations over the course of the last three meetings that gifted fossil fuel interests with a hall pass to environmental review, former Chairman Vincent DeVito has left his post at the RPC to take a position with an offshore oil company.

Even further concerning, is the noticeable connection between the RPC recommendations – which are clearly influenced by industry lobbyists – and the recent actions taken by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In the days, dare we say minutes following the last RPC meeting in Albuquerque, the BLM released an information bulletin (IB) directing BLM field offices to prioritize approving applications for drilling by finding ways to avoid environmental review and involving the public – undermining the agency’s mission and responsibility to the public. Notably, the committee closed the last meeting by announcing this IB had been posted, shortly after the Onshore Working Group had presented their recommendations which mirrored the BLM’s announcement.

Unfortunately, we are likely to continue to see this industry heavy hand play out in the upcoming RPC meeting, with a recommendation that lets industry dictate where they are going to drill, as opposed to applying for a permit and letting the BLM give them permission. And as if this all could not be enough to handle, the meeting comes amidst a leasing flurry by the Trump administration, including a controversial plan to lease Colorado’s North Fork Valley, a premier sustainable farming region in the state, for expanded fracking and drilling.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of Thursday’s meeting:
What is the Royalty Policy Committee?
The Royalty Policy Committee (RPC) was formed to advise the Secretary of the Interior on royalty management issues and protect taxpayers by ensuring the public receives the full value of the natural resources produced from federal lands.

It was established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) which, while recognizing the merits of seeking the advice and assistance of our nation’s citizens, aims to assure that the advice is relevant, objective, and open to the public, and efficient with appropriate records and within reasonable cost. The FACA requires that committee memberships be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” However, this committee is clearly not, with groups filing a lawsuit against the Trump Administration for violating FACA.
What has happened since the last gathering of the RPC?
The last full committee meeting of the RPC was held in Albuquerque, in June. Here are some of the most noteworthy actions that have happened since then:

Revolving door spinning between Interior and industry. Vincent DeVito, who was assigned by Secretary Zinke to staff and oversee the Royalty Policy Committee left his role to join an offshore oil and gas company, Cox Oil Offshore LLC. While DeVito was chair of the RPC, the Offshore Oil & Gas Workgroup recommended DOI lower the royalty rate for offshore drilling, despite that taxpayers would lose out on billions over the life of the lease if the rate were lowered. Replacing DeVito is Scott Angelle, the Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement. This agency is tasked with overseeing offshore oil and gas safety, yet Angelle’s past has focused on expanding and increasing offshore drilling, including leading the push to lift the moratorium on Gulf Coast drilling put in place after the BP oil spill. Notably, elsewhere at Interior, Secretary Zinke’s Deputy Chief of Staff Downey Magallanes, who led the agency’s efforts to shrink protected national monuments in Utah, left Interior last month for a position at BP.
DOI starts leasing bonanza. DOI has been setting in motion policies and plans that would grease the wheels for massive, indiscriminate oil and gas leasing on public lands. The results are coming to life this September and December, with millions of acres up for lease, and will have impacts for decades to come. To put the sales into perspective, the proposed 2.4 million acres are about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, or the size of the entire Yellowstone National Park, and may will be sold at bottom dollar prices. Parcels near Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona were leased just this week for only $2/acre.
Arctic drilling moves forward. Arctic drilling moving forward. At a previous meeting, the Alaska Specific RPC Workgroup recommended DOI rush to hold a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. DOI has wasted no time, initiating scoping for an environmental impact statement on the proposed sale and moving forward with a seismic testing plan. If the seismic plan moves forward, massive ‘shaker trucks’ would be allowed into the Refuge as early as this December to conduct testing, over the objection of Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. It remains unclear if DOI will give the public an opportunity to weigh in.
DOI expected to repeal methane rule, wasting taxpayer dollars. The administration has indicated they will fully repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane Waste and Prevention Rule later this month, which was established to reduce wasted natural gas from oil and gas operations on public lands and estimated to save taxpayers $800 million over the next decade. A group of 24 different conservation organizations have signed onto a letter that was submitted as a public comment for the upcoming RPC meeting. The letter aims to center a discussion on the continuing revenue lost due to natural gas waste on public lands and highlight the fact that the RPC doesn’t have any plans to address this issue.
New BLM guidance mirrors RPC recommendations. At the most recent meeting of the committee in Albuquerque, the RPC reviewed and approved three recommendations to reduce environmental review of oil and gas activities. Notably, one proposal recommended requiring all Bureau of Land Management field offices to issue Categorical Exclusions (CX) from National Environmental Policy Act review for certain drilling activities. Before the ink was even dry on this recommendation, the BLM issued an Information Bulletin to its field offices to expedite the processing of drilling permits and directing that “ to comply with NEPA in the most expeditious and appropriate manner, the BLM should first consider whether other avenues for NEPA compliance are available before preparing a new EA or a new EIS.”

A second proposal recommended that BLM limit environmental review required on wells drilled into federal minerals from private or state land. Existing policy already limits the contexts in which NEPA applies, but also recognizes that the presence of federal minerals may require environmental review, as application of the Endangered Species Act and National Historic Preservation Act. Just a week after the meeting, BLM issued a new instruction memorandum on directional drilling into federal mineral estate from well pads on non-federal locations.
What will the RPC be putting forward as recommendations in Denver?
The recommendations the RPC has entertained to date would benefit companies, not taxpayers, and that will unfortunately continue at the Colorado meeting.

Give industry free reign to drill. The Planning, Analysis and Competitiveness Subcommittee is recommending that DOI create a pilot project to allow industry to simply notify BLM when they want to start drilling rather than have BLM affirmatively approve an application for a permit to drill (ADP) as is the current law. This is similar to a proposal industry is pushing in Congress via H.R. 6088.

As for its rationale for this pilot, the RPC recommendation points to “backlogs” in permitting at two BLM field offices, the Buffalo Field Office in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Carlsbad Field Office in New Mexico. These are two of the busiest field offices in the country. If there is a “backlog” in permitting, it is more often a result of operator caused delays than of BLM staff inaction. Imposing time limits and “streamlining” the process should not help applicants who simply do not submit complete and accurate information to the BLM in the first place. BLM’s analysis of permit times shows that much of the delay is because the operator doesn’t submit a complete application.

Removing government review of site-specific applications puts at risk surface land owners, communities, wildlands and other values that can be harmed by oil and gas infrastructure and development.

Let companies set their own prices. The Fair Return and Valuation Subcommittee is recommending that DOI pursue a rulemaking to transfer the authority to set a value for public minerals from the Interior to private parties, essentially allowing producers to determine their own valuation methods for the coal, oil and gas they are drilling. This would undoubtedly result in the public not receiving fair value for the resources they own and would diminish transparency: producers could simply claim that their valuation methods are proprietary and should be kept secret.

What should the Royalty Policy Committee be recommending?
Current leasing and royalty practices are providing hidden subsidies to fossil fuel companies. This contributes to unfair compensation for the American public, and can tie up federal lands, often for decades—which means they’re neither being developed for energy nor managed for other uses that may be even more suitable for those lands, like conservation or recreation.

To encourage DOI to fix some of these problems, The Wilderness Society submitted a  petition last fall under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) asking for reform of the oil and gas leasing program. The APA gives citizens the right to request action from a federal agency to issue, repeal, or amend a rule, and entitles them to a prompt response. However, our petition has gone unanswered from the DOI to date.

But, if the Royalty Policy Committee needs a place to start, we recommend they consider our petition, which points out how the current oil and gas leasing system is broken and proposes solutions to protect American taxpayers:

Inadequate reclamation bonds. These bonds should provide funding for cleaning up the damage to public lands from oil and gas development, but the funds required are nowhere near sufficient.
Leasing of low-potential lands. These lands are less likely to be developed.
Lengthy and lax lease suspensions. Federal leases are issued for ten years—longer than most leases issued by states or private parties—so the industry already has ample time to develop leased lands. The current system is simply providing even more ways to extend leases without revenue or development. As a result, BLM has failed to recover more than $82 million of rental payments, with more than 3.38 million acres of federal minerals in suspension.
Below-market royalty rates. Royalty rates are currently only 12.5 percent, far lower than state and private land rates.
Below-market rent. Oil and gas producers pay only a dollar and change annually for each acre leased.
Low minimum-lease bids. At just $2 per acre at a sale, these bids allow oil and gas companies to purchase and tie up lands they do not intend to use. A meaningful bid would incentivize purchases where companies intend to generate energy and revenue for the American taxpayer.
Unjustified reinstatements of lapsed leases. Even after leases are cancelled due to failures to pay rent, it is relatively easy for companies to get them put back in place through a “reinstatement” process, giving them another way to continue to benefit from public lands without either developing energy or providing a return to taxpayers.

 
This article was originally published by The Wilderness Society. 

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5 Recommendations to Speed Infrastructure Permitting Without Gutting Environmental Review

Getty/Justin SullivanWorkers construct scaffolding on a bridge in California, March 2014.

There is significant bipartisan agreement that the need to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure is critical. However, the environmental review process for permitting these infrastructure projects often becomes the scapegoat for any delays. Because of this, there have been a number of efforts to amend, weaken, and even scrap federal environmental review requirements over the years. But this review is critical—not only because it protects clean air and clean water for U.S. residents but also because it allows for public input to be collected and considered, ensuring that affected communities have a chance to weigh in on project alternatives.
Over the past six years, Congress has acted on three separate occasions to address common permitting challenges, passing the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) in 2014, and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2015. These bills provide the federal government with an array of tools to expedite permitting processes, without sacrificing environmental considerations and community input. But with President Donald Trump’s issuance of Executive Order 13807 in August 2017, environmental review is again on the chopping block.
Instead of asking Congress to cut corners and gut cornerstone environmental laws, here are five ways that federal agencies and their partners can use the tools already at their disposal to speed infrastructure permitting.

1. Fully implement existing permitting reforms and authorities that were enacted in the FAST Act, the WRRDA, and MAP-21
The three pieces of legislation noted above provided a number of new tools to federal agencies to speed environmental review. But the Trump administration continues to point to the permitting process as the main cause for project delays. Limited existing data, however, show that delays are more often the result of a lack of funding, failure to govern, and even politics.
As one way to address this, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish a public-facing online tracking system of projects in the permitting process. Project sponsors and the public are now able to use the tracking system—known as the Federal Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard—to expedite projects and understand the true causes of any delays. The permitting dashboard is still very much a work in progress, but it has significant untapped potential that could be improved through an investment in resources to ensure that it is upgraded on a regular basis.
Additionally, extensive and rigorous training components for subject matter experts across the government on how these new tools and authorities affect their work would ensure that the tools are being effectively employed. The Annual Report to Congress for Fiscal Year 2017 from the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC) shows that each agency has at least one updated online training tool. Leaders of permitting in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) should prioritize developing a strong community of practice across the government so that practitioners can regularly share case studies, training tools, and data needs.

2. Appoint people with collaborative project implementation and permitting expertise across the government
It is impossible for environmental review, and therefore permitting, to be streamlined without appropriate staff to do the work. Yet President Trump has failed to appoint people to key positions that could help accelerate project delivery, including positions within the EOP that are integral to coordinating reviews. In 2015, the FPISC was established to bring agencies together to discuss review challenges and share best practices, as well as to provide a connection to the EOP and the president. Yet the Trump administration has still not appointed anyone to lead the FPISC, which indicates a lack of high-level investment in permitting. The administration should make it a priority to fill these positions if it wants to see expedited permitting timelines.

3. Fund environmental review through implementing existing fee authority for cost recovery and regular appropriations
The FAST Act allowed the FPISC to create “a fee structure for project proponents to reimburse the United States for reasonable costs incurred in conducting environmental reviews and authorizations” for certain projects. The FPISC, however, has taken far too long to begin implementing this provision given the relative priority the Trump administration claims to place on expedited permitting. This new source of funding could help substantially, as permitting under the FAST Act only applies to the most complex projects.

4. Study and collect data on environmental review contracting practices
Federal agencies frequently turn to outside firms to conduct environmental reviews. For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has contracted with Environmental Management and Planning Solutions Inc. to do the environmental review for oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The contract award is for $1,667,550.44, and information from the General Services Administration shows that the federal contractor bills $214 per hour for a senior scientist’s time. While this may be a bargain for taxpayers, it is difficult to say for certain given the lack of data and other information on the frequency, cost, or efficacy of outsourcing essential environmental analysis. To address this, Congress should work with the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study and gather information about federal contracting practices for environmental review across the federal government.

5. Remove political influence from the environmental review process
The permitting review process must be objective and free from the political interests and conflicts that can so easily stall, delay, or even derail infrastructure projects. But the administration’s handling of the Hudson Tunnel project, an infrastructure proposal to modernize the bridges and tunnels that ferry more than 200,000 commuters per day to and from New Jersey and Manhattan, lays bare the current level of political meddling in the review process. Since a bipartisan meeting in September 2017, the president has refused to fund the project unless the Senate agrees to fund the southern border wall. The Trump administration points to burdensome environmental reviews as the culprit for delay—yet recently, an administration official was quoted as saying that the administration is “slow-walking” the completed review’s release.

Conclusion
Already, there is evidence that these tools, when used, can ensure that environmental review of major infrastructure projects is efficient. Instead of rushing headlong into further gutting the statutes that provide for public input on infrastructure and that protect clean air, clean water, and wildlife, the administration should put its existing toolkit to use.
Christy Goldfuss is the senior vice president for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. This article was originally published by the Center for American Progress. 

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On the U.S. Army Corps’ Aug. 31 Decision on the Dakota Access Pipeline

 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a brief decision on Aug. 31, 2018, affirming its original decision to issue a construction permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The decision comes a year after a federal court decision finding that the Army Corps decision violated federal laws and failed to consider the risks and impacts of oil spills.
Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman explains what happened.
 

https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/dapl-remand-decision.pdf

What action was just taken by the Army Corps of Engineers?

The Corps released a review of its original decision to grant permits to the Dakota Access pipeline to cross the Missouri River just upstream of the Standing Rock reservation.The review concludes that the original decision was lawful and adequate and that no further environmental review is necessary. (Read the Corps’ decision.)

How did the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe respond?

 

Mike Faith, Jr., Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, issued this statement: “The Army Corps’ decision to rubberstamp its illegal and flawed permit for DAPL will not stand.

“A federal judge declared the DAPL permits to be illegal, and ordered the Corps to take a fresh look at the risks of an oil spill and the impacts to the Tribe and its Treaty rights. That is not what the Army Corps did. Instead, we got a cynical and one-sided document designed to paper over mistakes, not address the Tribe’s legitimate concerns.

“The Tribe has worked in good faith every step of the way to develop technical and cultural information to help the Corps fully understand the consequences of permitting this pipeline. They took our hard work and threw it in the trash.

“The Tribe will be reviewing this decision closely, and determine how best to proceed in close consultation with our membership, staff, and advisors. In the meantime, we will continue to extend an open hand to the Army Corps to continue an honest dialogue about the impacts of this pipeline to the Standing Rock.”

Why did the Corps conduct a review of its original permit decision?

 

After Donald Trump reversed the Obama administration’s decision to effectively deny DAPL its permits at the Missouri, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, represented by lawyers at Earthjustice, filed a new lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers.

Among other things, the lawsuit alleged that the Corps failed to consider the risks of an oil spill, the impacts of a spill for the Tribe’s treaty rights, and the “environmental justice” implications of the permit.

In June of 2017, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., agreed with the Tribe on these issues, finding that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to give appropriate consideration to these matters.

The Court ordered the Corps to study these issues further and make a new permit decision. This review is known as a “remand.” (More on the 2017 ruling.)

What is the National Environmental Policy Act?

 

Often referred to by its acronym, “NEPA,” the National Environmental Policy Act is one of America’s landmark environmental laws — it is sometimes known as the “Magna Carta” of environmental law.

This law requires that, before a federal agency takes any action (such as a permit) that has significant environmental implications, it must fully disclose and consider all the risks and benefits of that decision — as well as alternatives with less environmental harm. The document for doing so is called an ”environmental impact statement.”

But the Army Corps never performed an environmental impact statement for the Dakota Access pipeline, finding that its effects were too insignificant to warrant that close study.

The remand document reaffirms that core finding, which the Tribe continues to believe is illegal.

Is the pipeline currently operating?

 

DAPL commenced operations in early June 2017, a few weeks prior to the Court’s decision finding that the permits were issued unlawfully.

The Court subsequently asked the parties for additional argument on whether the pipeline should be shut down while the remand was underway. In October, the Court answered that question in the negative. However, the Court later imposed some measures to increase pipeline safety and accountability.

Did the Tribe participate in the remand process?

 

The Tribe worked hard to participate in the remand process so that it could work collaboratively with the Corps and ensure that the government understood its concerns.

Its technical experts prepared an extensive report on the risks and oil spills. The Tribe repeatedly asked for meetings and for technical documentation from the Corps and DAPL.

However, the Corps refused to share any of the technical information on which it relied, in violation of its own consultation policies and severely undercutting the ability of the Tribe to comment effectively on DAPL’s incorrect and self-interested technical materials.

What specifically did the remand document conclude?

 

Remarkably, the Corps’ memorandum of decision is only two pages long. It concludes, without explanation, that:

The pipeline will not adversely impact the Standing Rock Tribe’s treaty resources because “the risk of an incident is low;”
Does not implicate any environmental justice considerations, even though the project was routed at the doorstep of the Standing Rock reservation; and
Rejected the Tribe’s technical input and finds that there is not a significant controversy over the project’s impacts.

The memo points to an analysis that the Corps informed the Court was not being released at this time due to a confidentiality review. However, the Tribe believes that every one of these conclusions is incorrect.

What comes next?

 

The Tribe, together with its technical and legal teams, will be meeting in the weeks ahead to discuss options.

The Court still retains jurisdiction over the case and may put a deadline on the Tribe to decide whether it will bring a new lawsuit against the remand decision. Those decisions will be made in the next 4–6 weeks.

The Tribe will make a public announcement when it takes the next step in the process.

 

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Trump proposal to weaken project reviews threatens the ‘Magna Carta of environmental law’

Building the U.S. Interstate highway system in the 1950s and 60s is often cited as one of government’s great achievements. But it had harmful impacts too. Many city communities were bulldozed to make space for freeways. Across the nation, people vigorously objected to having no say in these decisions, leading to “freeway revolts.”

This outcry, coupled with the growing environmental movement, gave rise to the idea – revolutionary at the time – that agencies should take a hard look at the environmental impacts of their actions, consider reasonable alternatives and allow community input. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), enacted in 1970, codified these principles and allowed citizens to sue if they believed government had not complied. Because it represents a turning point in thinking about environmental protection, NEPA has been called the “Magna Carta of environmental law.”

Despite NEPA’s demonstrated successes, critics have attacked it for years, usually based on anecdotes claiming that lengthy environmental reviews caused project delays. President Donald Trump’s infrastructure initiative is the latest example. And on May 3, 2018, the Trump administration announced that it will soon propose changes to the rules that guide federal agencies carrying out NEPA reviews.

As attorneys who held senior positions at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, including managing the agency’s NEPA office, we have extensive experience with NEPA reviews. Expert studies reveal a vast disconnect between the evidence, which shows that NEPA is not the cause of project delays, and the sweeping changes that NEPA critics are proposing. This disconnect reveals that current proposals aren’t really about speeding up projects, but are instead part of a broad deregulatory agenda that prioritizes business interests over public benefits from environmental protection.

Poster opposing a planned freeway in Washington, D.C., that was ultimately canceled in 1977. Greater Greater Washington, CC BY
NEPA reviews aren’t the cause of project delays
Over more than four decades, NEPA has helped government agencies make smarter choices about public infrastructure, reducing damage to both natural environments and communities and avoiding the costs of correcting ill-considered projects.

For example, in the 1990s Michigan’s state transportation agency wanted to build a four-lane highway across a huge swath of important wetlands. Using NEPA, citizens forced the state to consider alternatives. Ultimately the state decided to expand an existing highway instead, dramatically reducing environmental harm and saving US$1.5 billion. Similar stories have occurred across the country.

Critics have long used “NEPA is slowing projects down!” as their rallying cry. Independent experts have looked at the evidence and reached a different conclusion.

The most authoritative independent studies were done by the Government Accounting Office in 2014 and the Congressional Research Service in 2011 and 2012. They found that the vast majority of projects have very streamlined reviews.

About 95 percent of all projects subject to NEPA go through a very short process called a “categorical exclusion” that usually takes from a few days to a few months. Another 4 percent have a short and straightforward review, called an “environmental assessment,” that usually takes between four and 18 months. Less than 1 percent of projects are subject to a full review, which is called an “environmental impact statement.”

Typically, these are large-scale initiatives such as a new highway, a major dredging project or a multistate pipeline. You wouldn’t know it from rhetoric in Washington, but the sweeping changes being proposed to NEPA are focused on less than 1 percent of projects.

These independent investigations also found that NEPA reviews are not the reason that the biggest projects take time. State and local issues, such as funding shortfalls, changing priorities and local controversy, are the most significant influence on whether a project moves forward quickly or takes longer than anticipated. Of course, there are examples where environmental reviews took too long, but in many cases these reviews started and stopped for reasons unrelated to environmental issues.
Not about efficiency
In fact, by requiring agencies to consider alternatives to their envisioned projects, environmental reviews can speed things up by identifying better options and solving problems that could be costly or cause delays in the long run – a common issue in highway construction, for example. As our shop teachers advised, “Measure twice, cut once.” This is one reason why federal agencies that use NEPA most, including the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Energy, have long voiced support for it.

Enshrining unsupported policy in statutes passed by Congress makes those choices much harder to fix. Here’s what the president wants to do that would require changing the law:

– Take environmental agencies out of NEPA reviews. Congress recognized that some federal agencies are focused on building things, like highways or energy projects, and that protecting the environment is not their mission or area of expertise. That’s why it gave EPA a central role in NEPA studies by other agencies.

EPA involvement has helped reduce adverse environmental impacts through early up front coordination, without adding time. The agency routinely produces its comments within 30 days. The Trump infrastructure plan proposes to eliminate EPA’s review role.

– Cut a huge hole in consideration of alternatives. The Trump proposal would insert waffle words, like provisions limiting alternatives to those that the applicant finds “economically feasible” or are within the applicant’s “capability,” into NEPA’s requirement for agencies to consider reasonable alternatives. This approach allows applicants to avoid considering options they don’t like.

Consideration of alternatives is the heart of NEPA. Thinking hard about how projects can be done with less environmental damage – for example, by reusing an already developed site instead of paving over open space – improves designs, saves money and builds public support.

– Set the stage for getting rid of NEPA completely. In case anyone misses the point, the Trump plan allows some projects to bypass all environmental reviews on a “pilot” basis. A recent report by the conservative Heritage Foundation follows the same playbook by calling for repeal of NEPA.

Pete Brunner of Falmouth, Maine, casts for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot River in 2006. A NEPA review led to denial in 1997 of a permit for a major hydropower plant on the Penobscot after the study showed that it would harm salmon. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File
Change NEPA practice, not the law
Over the last 45 years federal agencies have improved their processes for carrying out NEPA reviews, through steps such as providing more up front consultation. The Obama administration was continuing that effort with a number of consensus efficiency improvements that show promise for speeding things up without undercutting NEPA’s important goals.

By requiring government agencies to think before they act, NEPA has avoided countless harmful and ill-considered ideas. As the secretary of energy said in 1992, after halting a project that would have cost billions, “[T]hank God for NEPA because there were so many pressures to make a selection for a technology that might have been forced upon us and that would have been wrong for the country.”

Federal agencies should keep finding ways to implement NEPA more efficiently. What the federal government shouldn’t do is make enormous statutory changes based on incorrect claims about a fraction of 1 percent of projects – or disregard the lesson of the last 45 years that the most efficient choice is to build things right the first time.
About the authors: Janet McCabe served as Deputy Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) from 2009 to 2013, and as Acting Assistant Administrator for OAR from 2013-2017. She is a senior law fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center and a member of Duke Energy’s Indiana Citizens Advisory Board. Cynthia Giles served as Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance from 2009 to 2017. She is currently the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Executive Fellow at the Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. To read the original article, please click here.

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Tribes Challenge Forest Service Approval for Toxic Open-Pit Copper Mine on Sacred Land

Tucson, AZ (April 12, 2018) — The Tohono O’odham Nation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Hopi Tribe filed a complaint in U.S. District Court today challenging the approval by the U.S. Forest Service of a plan by Hudbay Minerals Inc. of Canada to develop a sprawling toxic open pit copper mine on public land. The tribes are represented by Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm.

The proposed Rosemont Copper Mine would be located about 30 miles south of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains, a place of great cultural and ecological significance. The tribes, representing more than 50,000 enrolled members, have resided in this region since time immemorial and have a deep connection to the land and wildlife. The proposed mine site lies within the tribes’ ancestral homelands and contains numerous sacred sites, ancestral villages and burial grounds. The mine site is also home to the endangered jaguar, an animal of spiritual significance to the tribes.

The proposed mine, to be developed by Hudbay Minerals Inc., would be devastating to these cultural and natural values. The mine would transform 3,653 acres of National Forest land that is publicly-owned and of important cultural and religious significance to the tribes into an industrial mining zone. The mine would require the excavation of an open pit over a mile wide and a half-mile deep to be served by roads, ore processing facilities, and groundwater pumping. The pit will be surrounded by waste piles containing over a billion tons of waste rock and tailings.

The Forest Service admits that the damage to cultural resources would be “severe, irreversible and irretrievable.” It would destroy 82 historic places and desecrate at least 31 known gravesites, though numerous others are likely to be discovered during the excavation process. Despite these impacts, the Forest Service approved the Final Environmental Impact Statement last June to allow the mine to proceed. 

In total, a dozen Arizona tribes have expressed concerns with this mine project, participating in meetings, public hearings, consultations. The Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui Tribes have passed formal resolutions of opposition in 2009 and 2013, respectively. The Tohono O’odham Nation also produced a short film, Ours is the Land, which details the significance of Ce:wi Duag (Santa Rita Mountains) and the irreparable harm the mine would cause.

“The Rosemont Copper project would destroy cultural and archeological sites on our traditional lands, including the graves of our ancestors,” said Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Edward D. Manuel. “Consider what it would be like if a foreign company proposed excavating Arlington National Cemetery. All Americans treasure this cemetery, just like our tribes treasure the land this mine will desecrate.”

Pascua Yaqui Tribe Chairman Robert Valencia said, “The proposed Rosemont Copper Mine would defile our heritage, and it also threatens our future. The mine would destroy lands, animals, and plants that have great spiritual significance to us. And, its impacts to our region’s groundwater resources poses a danger that will long outlast any mining operations.”

“The Hopi Tribe continues to hope that someday a Forest Service supervisor’s decision will reflect the Forest Service’s listening to tribes regarding Sacred Sites and Traditional Cultural Properties, respect the natural water, wildlife, and night sky values of the tribes, and assist the Forest Service in emerging from the 19th century into the 21st,” said Hopi Tribe Vice Chairman Clark W. Tenakhongva.

The mine also would cause permanent damage to precarious groundwater resources in the arid region. Seeps and springs which are not only sacred to the tribes but also support native plants and wildlife, would be depleted. After the copper is gone and the company abandons the mine, a toxic lake would form in the pit, creating a hydraulic sink that will deplete streams, collect polluted runoff and siphon water from the regional aquifer. This toxic lake will never be reclaimed or remediated.

“This mine will have devastating impacts on sacred lands long used by the tribes for prayer, ceremonies, and to connect with their past and their ancestors,” said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney with Earthjustice. “The Forest Service should have rejected Hudbay’s request to use these sacred lands as a dumping ground for toxic waste rock, mine tailings, and processing plants. Instead, the Forest Service bowed to the mining company and then denied it had the authority to protect this uniquely important place. We’re asking the Court to right this injustice.”

The complaint is based on the Forest Service’s violations of the Forest Service Organic Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act. The tribes are asking the Court to reverse the Forest Service’s decision and enjoin construction of the mine.

Read the legal document.

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Preserving Local Voices in Broadband Deployment

I’m not a telecommunications lawyer and don’t usually follow what’s happening at the Federal Communications Commission, but this week I am. At its March 22 meeting, the Commission is set to vote on rule changes that would remove the deployment of small wireless facilities from public participation and environmental review currently in place. NRDC opposes the changes.
What the FCC’s Order Does

The FCC published its Wireless Streamlining Report and Order on March 1, 2018. The Commission will vote on whether to approve the order on March 22.
The Order makes two changes to the FCC’s rules implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). First, the Order excludes facilities placed in a floodplain as long as they are placed at least one foot above the base flood elevation from NEPA review. Previously, any facility located in a floodplain required at least an Environmental Assessment (EA) under NEPA. Second, the Order changes the rule requiring an EA to exclude: (1) the construction of mobile stations; and (2) small wireless facilities meeting certain criteria.
The Order also excludes the deployment of wireless communication facilities from the definition of “undertaking” under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Section 106 of the NHPA requires that “the head of any Federal department or independent agency” shall take into account the effect of any proposed undertaking on historic properties.

Why the FCC’s Order Is a Bad Idea
1. We can rapidly deploy broadband technology without shutting local voices out. The radio spectrum provides for numerous types of wireless communication. The FCC licenses this spectrum for various uses. Currently, a voracious demand for wireless access to the internet (aka “broadband”) dominates such uses. 

The next generation of wireless technology—5G—offers faster data speeds and more reliable service. Rather than large, widely-spaced towers, the new 5G technology requires distributed antenna services and small cell facilities sited much more closely together. 

While the smaller size of these facilities may limit their impacts on a community’s historic, cultural and natural resources, the dramatic increase in their numbers mean more sites will be affected and cumulative impacts could be significant. Involving local elected officials and community members in the planning decisions will help ensure wiser and less controversial decisions.

2. The FCC’s Order discourages collaboration. Numerous stakeholders worked diligently over many months and years to develop a system of review that preserves local voices while allowing rapid deployment of broadband facilities. Like NEPA, the NHPA provides for limited review where impacts are limited.  The FCC has developed Programmatic Agreements with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and others to provide for streamlined review of impacts on historic and cultural resources. The FCC tosses these collaborative efforts aside.  As a result, diverse stakeholders oppose the Order including: the National Congress of American Indians and the National League of Cities, as well as individual tribes and cities across the country.

3. The FCC’s Order is unlawful. The plain language of both NEPA and the NHPA applies these laws to the FCC licensing at issue here. Courts have consistently treated licensing as both a “major federal action” under NEPA and an “undertaking” under the NHPA. The Commission can adjust the amount of review based on the minimal impacts of a licensed activity, but it cannot avoid review all together.

While Congress has encouraged the rapid deployment of wireless technology, it has mandated that it be done in a way that protects the environment as well as historic and cultural resources. NRDC supports the rapid deployment of wireless technology especially to remote communities which currently lack service. Future progress, however, does not require that we forget our past or sacrifice a healthy, vibrant and secure environment.

Sharon Buccino is NRDC’s Land and Wildlife Program Director. Prior to joining NRDC, she practiced environmental and administrative law with a private firm in Washington, D.C. and worked for the Alaska Supreme Court.

 

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The Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor Project

When construction wraps up on Los Angeles’ Crenshaw/LAX Line in 2019, the highly anticipated light rail route will connect a key corridor of the city from Jefferson Park to El Segundo and add a long-sought rail connection from downtown to one of the busiest airports in the world.

Getting the project off the ground, however, was no small feat. Without the approval of “Measure R,” a half-cent sales tax approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2009 that provided a dedicated funding for twelve metro area transit projects, the city simply wouldn’t have had the money to proceed.

Early project planning and work on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to construct the 8.5–mile line connecting two existing subway lines began in 2009.

During this review process, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Los Angeles Metro officials jointly identified a rarely-used five-mile long freight rail line instead of building new tracks that would have disrupted several neighborhoods and proven far costlier.

That decision decreased project costs, saved time, and reduced disturbances for the nearby community by using an existing right-of-way while providing significant environmental benefits, economic development, and employment opportunities throughout Los Angeles County.

One of the visionary elements of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) EPA is its creation of broad opportunities for public participation in government decisions that affect their environment and local communities. Throughout the environmental review and planning process, local residents were continuously engaged in dialogue to ensure the project would be completed in an equitable, beneficial, and resourceful way that met the needs of local communities.

The Crenshaw/LAX Community Leadership Council (CLC) was established thereafter to provide feedback and carries out its work through topic-specific working groups, quarterly community meetings, bi-monthly construction meetings and special project collaborations with Metro staff and other community groups. Residents of Leimert Park Village, for example won the battle for their own station and for the train to run underground and out of site for its first three stops.

One of the Federal Transit Administration’s first projects piloting a new process that helped identify and mitigate project risks more efficiently, the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was finalized less than two years later in 2011 and the Crenshaw/LAX light-rail alternative moved forward.

The Crenshaw/LAX transit corridor provides two key lessons. First, when projects are assigned dedicated sources of funding (e.g., Los Angeles’ Measure M) the NEPA review process is normally swift and rarely a major barrier to project completion. Project delays are more often than not the result of a combination of inadequate funding and local opposition. The NEPA review process and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) were completed in less than two years.

Second, without the NEPA review process, tens of thousands of residents from Inglewood to El Segundo would have been able to weigh in and provide feedback on the Crenshaw/LAX corridor project that stood to affect their livelihood and quality of life. Similarly, without the NEPA review process, federal decision-makers might not have been able to identify that a rarely-used freight railroad could be utilized at a lower cost and with less disruption to local communities.

Scheduled for completion in 2019, the Crenshaw/LAX line will run from the Jefferson Park neighborhood in the north to El Segundo in the south with an estimated daily ridership of 16,000.

 

[1] “Final Environmental Impact Statement/Final Environmental Impact Report: Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor.” Federal Transit Association (FTA). August 31, 2011. Available at: 
http://media.metro.net/projects_studies/crenshaw/images/FEIS_FEIR/00_Cover_Table_of_Contents.pdf 

[2] “Record of Decision: Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor.” Federal Transit Association (FTA). Deceber 30, 2011. Available at: 
http://media.metro.net/projects_studies/crenshaw/images/20111230_CrenshawLAX_Record_of_Decision.pdf

[3] “About the Crenshaw/LAX Community Leadership Council (CLC).” Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Available at: 
https://www.metro.net/projects/crenshaw_corridor/clc-about/

[4] The Crenshaw Line will open in 2019—how are residents feeling about it?” LA Curbed. September 22, 2017. Available at: 
https://la.curbed.com/2017/9/22/16347450/crenshaw-line-lax-leimert-park-metro-development

[5] “Community Organizations Shed Light On New Crenshaw District.” Los Angeles Sentinel. December 2, 2015. Available at: 

Community Organizations Shed Light On New Crenshaw District

 

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