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Congress Curtails Public Input on Public Lands

This week in D.C., Congress, in alignment with the wishes of the oil and gas industry, move again to undermine one America’s best ideas: public lands. Specifically, the House Natural Resources Committee are marking up a set of bills that would effectively eliminate the public’s right to participate in most decisions regarding public land use for oil and gas extraction. These bills also align with a drastic new policy from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that significantly curtails public participation. These actions are the products of a persistent effort by the oil and gas industry to bulldoze any federal impediments to maximal profit, whether endangered species habitat, safeguards against catastrophic accidents, or the right of Americans to be involved in the management of our shared natural heritage.

Our ability as citizens to participate in federal land management decisions and other federally-linked projects that could impact the environment is one the foundations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, NEPA is a bedrock environmental law that requires federal decision-making to be conducted deliberately and thoughtfully by taking stock of a project’s potential environmental and social impacts, as well as legal conflicts, using the best available science and considering the positions of key stakeholders and the general public while ensuring the public is informed of federal actions. It establishes processes that require time and expertise to complete, which irks the oil and gas industry, but ensures the U.S. government uses the best information available. In addition to NEPA, in 1976 President Ford signed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, adding additional measures enshrining the public’s right to participate in how public lands are governed.  

But four pieces of legislation being marked-up tomorrow would keep the public from engaging in many impactful federal land management decisions regarding oil and gas drilling. These bills had their first Congressional hearings on June 6th, where a number of witnesses for the majority championed broad exemptions from NEPA. Coincidentally, on the same day across the country in Albuquerque, a leading oil and gas industry representative with the Western Energy Alliance spoke (see pgs. 10 – 11) at the Interior Department’s Royalty Policy Committee Meeting, recommending BLM issue agency guidance to greatly expand the use of categorical exclusions (CXs) for oil and gas activities, the same type of waivers from NEPA Congress was considering legislating. And if that wasn’t enough of a coincidence, BLM issued an Information Bulletin—no quick task—adopting Western Energy Alliance’s recommendations the same afternoon.

The four bills being marked up tomorrow would strengthen and calcify the recommendations offered by the Western Energy Alliance and adopted with remarkable expedience by the Interior Department. Given how closely all of these processes neatly align, it would be foolish not to construe that the Trump administration and Republican leaders of the House Natural Resource Committee are working in concert with the oil and gas industry to advance these measures designed to eliminate the public’s right to participate on how public lands are managed.

The NEPA elements these policies attack are in place to ensure the lands we, as Americans, all own are managed with our interests in mind. By maximizing the data available to civil servants, they help shepherd good decisions—decisions that could impact a community or an ecosystem for decades—setting a global model for good governance and resource management. But such principles are anathematic to the oil and gas industry, which has powerful allies all too ready to help. Those who care about sustainable use of our natural heritage should stand against these regressive policies.

The bills the House’s Natural Resources Committee is considering tomorrow each take a distinct whack in dismantling key aspects of NEPA:

H.R. 6087 (Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming) – Authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to attach a highly burdensome fee for public protests for oil and gas lease sales and other agency actions. The protest process is designed to ensure the public can point out errors in the government’s reasoning and give it a chance to correct. Protest filings that approach a thousand pages have occurred, given that unfortunately the BLM have often failed to include critical data. A thousand-page protest over one lease parcel would incur a fee of over $5,000 under Rep. Cheney’s bill, a.k.a. the Removing Barriers to Energy Independence Act. Clearly, this bill would have a chilling effect on a valuable element of the public input process.  But it would also have the perverse incentive to encourage the agency to issue incomplete decision records, put the financial onus on the public to correct the record.
H.R. 6106 (Rep. Stevan Pearce of New Mexico) – Expands the use of CXs in the Interior Department’s oil and gas leasing program. Rep. Pearce’s Common Sense Permitting Act would arbitrarily expand CX applicability, and, for potentially impactful projects, eliminate the public’s right to participate in the NEPA review as well as BLM’s discretionary ability to implement solutions to avoid needless resource use conflicts.
H.R. 6088 (Rep. John R. Curtis of Utah) – Severely hamstrings the Interior Department’s ability to review applications to drill oil and gas wells on public lands. This is often the only juncture at which the government looks at specific sites closely, a requisite step for BLM to adequately evaluate—and prevent—harm from a new well and associated activities.
H.R. 6107 (Rep. Stevan Pearce of New Mexico) – Eliminates federal oversight of oil and gas activities conducted on non-Federal surface estate to access subsurface mineral estate that is less than 50 percent Federally owned. Even if we are minority owners, those mineral resources still belong in-part to all Americans—the federal government should be allowed to meet its responsibility to manage them in trust for the public interest.

In addition, to the legislation, BLM’s Information Bulletin (IB) IB 2018-61 hews to the same theme, effectively constructing a flow chart for avoiding NEPA analysis of oil and gas leasing and development decisions. Between this policy and a previously updated leasing policy (see Instruction Memorandum 2018-34), federal land managers are now under instruction to:

Preclude public input and skip rigorous environmental review for the majority of oil and gas activities on our public lands. This policy has land managers relying on broad Land Use Plans to check the NEPA box, despite their inadequacy for identifying site-specific resource or human conflicts.
Emphasize the application and issuance of categorical exclusions (versus applying a more rigorous and transparent review process).
Stop reviewing certain CXs for circumstances that should automatically preclude their use under law.  For instance, even if a project might endanger critical lands or endangered species, land managers are encouraged to look the other way. 
Expand use of Master Development Plans to evaluate and approve multiple applications to drill, again foregoing crucial site-specific analysis. And it encourages civil servants to actively avoid opening public comment periods unless they are unambiguously required by law.
Emphasis on the issuance of applications to drill even without a requisite site inspection, which is critical to verify whether wildlife and land resources might be unduly impacted.  Hence, land managers must rely either on inadequate data and/or the word of the oil and gas applicant.

 
Bobby McEnaney is Senior Deputy Director for NRDC’s Western Renewable Project. In his work, Bobby focuses on promoting the sustainable development of renewable energy resources on public lands while working to protect the nation’s lands from the dirtier energy processes that threaten them.
 

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Of Course, It’s OK, We Are Only Lying About NEPA

There are few principles as basic to Americans as the right to participate in decisions when the federal government is going to affect the environment or economy of a community. Because this is inconvenient for developers they have enlisted the Congress and the White House in trying to cripple that right that is enshrined in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). There have been over 60 separate bills introduced this year to scale it back NEPA and on June 6, 2018, another hearing on weakening NEPA is scheduled. This hearing is based on the theory that oil and gas drilling and fracking on public lands would never have a more than insignificant impact on the environment, ever.

Over the past several months, the propaganda about the required environmental reviews that agencies conduct before projects has been overwhelming. I wrote a blog on one of those misrepresentations here. The major theme of the critics of environmental reviews is that despite its almost 50-year history, government projects, private fossil fuel development, and infrastructure has been stymied, mainly because of the National Environmental Policy Act. This is obviously untrue, based on the growth of our economy that included becoming a net exporter of energy during President Obama’s term. I will use this blog to critique several recent poster children of NEPA and note the misstatements. (Or, if you prefer, “lies.”)
Poster Child #1 Bayonne Bridge
CNBC did a story about the delays President Trump cited for road and highway projects, and, at the behest of the White House, spotlighted the case of the Bayonne Bridge raising, which critics said was slowed because of permitting and environmental reviews. The CNBC investigative tory, if you watch the short clip here, found that weather and continuing the use of the bridge during construction were the drivers of the delays. The claims of a “10-year” review, were off base: It only took 26 months.
Post Child #2 Anderson Bridge
On February 13, in conjunction with its federal infrastructure plan rollout, the White House published a blog post titled “Washington Will No Longer be a Roadblock to Rebuilding America.” The blog uses the long delay of the Anderson Memorial Bridge project in Boston as an example of how federal environmental reviews and federal permitting is hindering infrastructure development across the country. The problem, once again, is that federal environmental permitting had nothing to do with this project. The Anderson Memorial Bridge project was funded completely by the State of Massachusetts and did not alter the existing waterway along the Charles River, so at no point was federal-level environmental permitting needed for this project. The implication is clear: While the White House has come up with a mythical conclusion, it failed to find an example of even one project that fit that conclusion.
Poster Child #3: Dredging the Port of Corpus Christi
This is a typical scapegoating NEPA story. Politicians often get authorization for projects (and local press about the project) but fail to get the Congress to “appropriate” money to build them. Authorizations mean nothing without appropriations. Often, rather than admit they were unable to get real money, members will put the blame on environmental reviews. On March 6, 2018, according to the Corpus Christi Business News, officials representing the Port of Corpus Christi met with their former governor and now Secretary of Energy Rick Perry about the need for federal funding for the dredging of the Port of Corpus Christi. The environmental reviews for this project weren’t mentioned.

However, the following week, Perry testified before the Senate Commerce Committee about the president’s infrastructure package loaded with anti-NEPA provisions. He didn’t urge lawmakers to fund the dredging project, as the port officials had requested. Instead, he claimed the reason the project failed to go forward wasn’t money, but bureaucrats:

“This isn’t a matter of we’re coming up here, or they’re coming up here, and asking for more money, they’re asking for federal agencies to basically get out of the way, to give them approval, so I think that’s one of the things that the president is talking about.”
This will be sad news to the Port which said the problem wasn’t NEPA, but the need for 225 million federal dollars.

Stories like this can be repeated a million times, or rather 97 billion times. A Republican memo to the Transportation and Infrastructure committee about funding of Army Corps of Engineers projects, noted that there are $97 billion of projects ready to go, but the Corps’ construction budget is only $5 billion a year. The problem isn’t NEPA; it’s where is the $92 billion.

NRDC is working to protect NEPA, one of the landmark environmental statutes. The main goal of NEPA is assuring that the federal government looks before it leaps. It requires the federal government, when it is doing something to your community, to allow the public and local officials a chance to comment and these comments often lead to better projects. It should not be gutted as a diversion from the real problem addressing our infrastructure.

I recently was on a podcast with a Nick Goldstein, Vice President of Regulatory & Legal Issues of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. I was well armed to defend NEPA from attacks by the road builders, but instead found myself nodding along while Goldstein made the same point I did: The real problem with infrastructure is the lack of federal financing.

Scott Slesinger is the Legislative Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He works with NRDC staff to develop strategies for advancing environmental legislation and lobby Congress on behalf of the organization. 

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The Royalty Policy Committee: What You Need to Know

 

This week, a federal committee selected by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and stacked with industry interests aligned with Interior’s well-known public lands sell out agenda will meet in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the third time since being re-chartered by Secretary Zinke in 2017, to conjure up more ways to exploit public lands for the benefit of fossil fuel interest at the expense of taxpayers, clean air and water and conservation. New Mexico is currently the recipient of the second largest amount of federal royalty revenues and this is an important source of revenue for the state. So, when the RPC makes recommendations to allow more royalty rate exceptions, and to let industry set their own rules, New Mexico feels the impact.

The theme of keeping the public out and industry in will unfortunately continue into this next meeting, with the addition of two folks who have close relations to the Trump administration to closed-door subcommittee meetings and recommendations to cut out public review opportunities, limit evaluation of environmental consequences, and make it easier for companies to be excused from their requirements to pay royalties for offshore drilling. Here’s what you need to know ahead of next week’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.”
What has happened since the last gathering of the RPC?
The last full committee meeting of the RPC was held in Houston, in February, a number of recommendations were put forward. Here are some of the most noteworthy actions that have happened since then:

1. New friends allowed in the room. The Department of the Interior (DOI) has faced significant criticism for making little effort to include the public or taxpayer interests in the committee. In response, DOI has invited the conservative Heritage Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform to attend subcommittee meetings that are otherwise closed to the public. Neither were added to  the full committee or designated alternates nor were they formally named to a subcommittee, as was done for American Petroleum Institute’s Emily Hague. Rather they are both said to be representing the public interest and serving as subject matter experts. Notably, both organizations have nothing on either of their websites about the Royalty Policy Committee or royalty policy matters. Meanwhile, the committee and subcommittees meeting summaries are being posted weeks after the meetings take place, shrouding the process in secrecy and, giving the public little detail into the actions or recommendations that take place.

2. Artic leasing advanced. At the last meeting, the Alaska Specific Workgroup recommended DOI rush to hold a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. DOI has wasted no time, and in April took its first official step toward holding an oil and gas lease sale on the sensitive coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by issuing a notice of intent to begin scoping for an environmental impact statement on the proposed sale.

3. Zinke rejected offshore drilling royalty rate adjustment recommendation. The Offshore Oil & Gas Workgroup made a head-scratching recommendation that DOI lower the royalty rate for offshore drilling to not more than 12.5%, the lowest rate allowed by law. This is significantly lower than the current rate of 18.75% which was established during the administration of former President George W. Bush. After public backlash, Secretary Zinke said he would not move forward with the committee’s recommendation.

4. DOI moved forward rule repeals that will waste taxpayer dollars. The administration put forward a proposal to repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane Waste and Prevention Rule, which was established to reduce wasted natural gas from oil and gas operations on public lands and estimated to save taxpayers $800 million over 10 years. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is leading a lawsuit against the Department of Interior’s actions to roll back the methane rule. 
What will the RPC be putting forward as recommendations in Albuquerque?
The recommendations the RPC has entertained to date would benefit companies, not taxpayers, and that will continue at the Albuquerque meeting.

1. The BLM cut out public review opportunities in certain oil and gas drilling decisions by requiring all field offices to issue Categorical Exclusions (CX) from National Environmental Policy Act review. Similar direction to the agency in the mid-2000s led BLM to approve almost 6,900 oil-and-gas-related activities between 2006 and 2008 without environmental review. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that BLM’s use of these categorical exclusions through fiscal year 2008 often did not comply with either the law or BLM’s guidance. Using a CX would forgo environmental analysis and public review and allow the BLM to rubber stamp development quickly without fully considering the impacts. CXs are generally reserved for extreme circumstances where it is unequivocal that environmental analysis is unnecessary.

2. Limit evaluation of environmental consequences from oil and gas development. Limiting analysis of impacts is inconsistent with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act to look at the indirect effects and cumulative impacts. Adopting this recommendation would be irresponsible and expose projects to increased legal challenges.

3. 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. If adopted, important federal interests in protecting air quality, threatened species, and cultural resources would not be analyzed and protected.

4. Yet another recommendation aimed at making it easier for companies to be excused from their requirements to pay royalties for offshore drilling. The proposal is for BLM to consider a broader set of factors when analyzing royalty relief applications. As Secretary Zinke said when rejecting a previous RPC recommendation on offshore royalty rate reduction: “Right now, we can maintain higher royalties from our offshore waters without compromising the record production and record exports our nation is experiencing.” Yet, the industry continues to use the RPC to make proposals to reduce what it pays the American public for its energy without any analysis of how such reductions would affect taxpayers and states who benefit from royalties.
Where are these recommendations coming from?
A committee rigged to favor industry. Little effort has been made to include the public or taxpayer interests in the committee. For example, the Planning, Analysis, & Competitiveness Subcommittee is Co-directed by Randall Luthi, the President of the National Ocean Industries Association which represents “all facets of the domestic offshore energy and related industries” with 300-member companies. Convenient for him, his subcommittee is tasked with making recommendations on offshore drilling royalty rates and reviewing BOEM’s five-year offshore drilling plan – which proposes to open more than 90% of the OCS to leasing.  At this meeting, offshore energy interests will recommend yet another way to reduce their royalty payments for the public’s energy.
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:

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.

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.

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.

Leasing of low-potential lands. These lands are less likely to be developed.

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.
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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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Army Corps Rushes Pebble Mine Permit, Stifles Public Comment

The Alaska District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published today a Notice of Intent to prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that will evaluate the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine.

(Spoiler alert: based on a three-year, twice peer reviewed scientific assessment of the potential mining impacts on the Bristol Bay Watershed conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we already know those impacts will be “significant” and potentially “catastrophic.”)

Pebble Mine is the largest and most contentious mine ever proposed in Alaska. Because if its location at the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Pebble Mine risks the economic and cultural lifeblood of the region: its salmon. Salmon support a $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery and 14,000 jobs. Salmon have also supported a subsistence-based way of life for Alaska Natives for over 4,000 years.

It’s no wonder that the mine is opposed by 80 percent of Bristol Bay’s residents and 85 percent of its commercial fishermen—not to mention Alaska tribes and corporations, businesses, sportsmen, chefs, jewelers and conservation groups. The rest of the world is against it too: in 2016, the IUCN World Conservation Congress virtually unanimously adopted a motion opposing the Pebble Mine.

With a project this big—and this controversial—the Army Corps must take the time necessary to properly and adequately assess the proposal, reasonable alternatives, and the full-scope of potential impacts. This means conducting an open and robust permitting process.

If today’s notice is any indication, that will not be the case.

The Army Corps’ permitting schedule is geared more toward fast-tracking Pebble’s permit rather than taking a “hard look” at the project as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

For example, the Army Corps is:

Restricting the scoping comment period to a mere 30 days. By contrast, the scoping comment periods for three other projects in Alaska for which the Army Corps is the lead permitting agency ranged between 75 to over 100 days.
Scheduling only a handful of public hearings in the Bristol Bay region—and only one of those in a community downstream of the Pebble Mine site. This departs from the precedent set by EPA, which conducted hearings across Bristol Bay, Anchorage and in the Pacific Northwest before finalizing its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment.
Limiting actual public participation at certain hearings. At hearings in Dillingham, Homer, and Anchorage—locations where anti-Pebble sentiment and turn-out is particularly high—”an open microphone forum will not be provided.” While the Army Corps will not allow the public an opportunity to speak, it will afford the Pebble Limited Partnership an opportunity to show a video.
Rushing to complete the entire permitting process in less than two years— shorter than any other large-scale development project in Alaska. Based on the Army Corps’ current timeline, Pebble could have its permit by early 2020.

The Army Corps is racing ahead despite a formal request from Bristol Bay leaders—including the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Association, United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Nunamta Aulukestai, and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation—not to initiate the NEPA process until after Pebble presents sufficient environmental baseline and economic data that would enable the Army Corps – and the public—to properly evaluate the project.

Bristol Bay leaders are joined by Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and the Pacific Seafood Processors Association asking the Army Corps to extend the comment period to 120 days, to include public hearings throughout the Bristol Bay region and the Pacific Northwest, and to allow meaningful public participation.

If the Army Corps is truly committed to an “open” and “transparent” process, then it should slow down now and respond to the requests for additional time, outreach, and public engagement.

 

Taryn Kiekow Heimer is Deputy Director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, Nature Program.

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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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Meeting Future Needs – Judge Tells Trump to Rethink Coal

Great Falls, MT (March 23, 2018) – Stretching across Wyoming and Montana, the Powder River Basin holds enough coal to keep America’s current coal power plants going for over 100 years. It supplies about 40% of the nation’s coal and accounts for 13% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In September 2015, the BLM opened all this coal to leasing. Federal District Judge Brian Morris says not so fast.

The court ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to consider any alternative in its land use plans that would decrease the amount of coal available for leasing. BLM also failed to analyze the impacts burning the coal, as well as oil and gas, from the public lands would have as a result of climate change to which it would contribute.
BLM FAILED TO CONSIDER FUTURE NEEDS
Our public lands are some of our most precious assets. From the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles to Great Smoky Mountains, they are there for each one of us to enjoy. We trust the government to manage them in our best interest.  Such trust, however, is not unbounded.  Congress has authorized more uses on BLM lands than in national parks, but the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) nevertheless recognizes all the public’s lands as assets that future generations have as much right to enjoy as the present one.  BLM must manage the public lands so they are “utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.” 43 U.S.C. § 1702(c).

Addressing future needs requires looking at indirect and downstream effects of a proposed action. Judge Morris found that BLM had not.  BLM estimated that it would lease over 10 billion tons of coal over the next 20 years. The agency estimated the emissions that would be associated with burning this coal, but did not address the impacts such emissions might have. The judge held that BLM could not wait until it issued leases to specific coal companies. BLM had to analyze and consider the impacts of burning the coal at the time it was deciding how much of the coal to open to leasing. 

The judge held that the same analysis was required of the impacts of burning oil and gas opened to leasing.
BLM FAILED TO CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES
To help ensure informed decision-making, NEPA requires an agency to look at reasonable alternatives to a proposed action. Here, every alternative opened the same amount of coal to leasing – ALL of it. BLM relied upon previous coal screening which had failed to consider climate change at all in the decision about how much coal to lease. Judge Morris found that our changing times required new analysis. BLM could not stick its head in the sand. Managing in the public interest in today’s carbon-constrained world requires taking into account the consequences of burning the federal fossil fuels we choose to take out of the ground.
BLM FAILED TO USE BEST SCIENCE
NEPA requires that “accurate scientific analysis” inform agency decision-making. Here, BLM failed to use the best science available to calculate the impact of the methane emissions.  Methane is a much more potent gas than carbon dioxide. BLM looked only at the long-term effects of methane emissions over a 100-year time horizon. The agency failed to explain why it did not use an available 20-year time horizon to assess short-term impacts.    
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT:

The judge declared the government’s decision unlawful. He must now decide the appropriate remedy.
NRDC asked the court to block any leasing or development of coal, oil or gas until BLM completes the informed decision-making the law requires. The decision involves over 15 million acres of public land and minerals managed by two of BLM’s offices – the Buffalo office in Wyoming and the Miles City office in Montana.
The judge will consider this request and other options over the summer. He has ordered the parties to meet and confer in good faith to attempt to reach agreement as to remedies. In the event no agreement is reached, the parties shall file briefs addressing the appropriate remedy for BLM’s unlawful action by May 21.

 

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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Trump’s Infrastructure Scam Will Gut Environmental Protections To Benefit Corporate Polluters

In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump is expected to announce a long-awaited plan to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure and call on the U.S. Congress to work with his administration on related legislation. Leaked versions of the infrastructure proposal, however, show that this is not a plan to put Americans to work rebuilding crumbling infrastructure. Instead, it’s a full-scale gutting of environmental protections to benefit corporate polluters and steamroll American communities.

As detailed in the leaked proposal, the Trump administration’s plan would require fundamental changes to no fewer than 10 bedrock environmental laws that protect the nation’s clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks. The plan would hollow out the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that requires federal project sponsors to consult with stakeholders who would be affected by new projects and identify ways to reduce their impact on the environment, public health, and cultural resources. The Endangered Species Act is also in the crosshairs, as several provisions would prioritize new development over the protection of wildlife that is on the brink of extinction. The Trump administration proposes significant changes to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to make it easier for corporations to break ground and avoid inconvenient air and water quality protections. The proposal even includes some mystifying provisions, such as one to give Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke unilateral authority to site natural gas pipelines in national parks.

The Trump administration will attempt to brand these environmental attacks as an effort to improve the infrastructure permitting process. In actuality, they are attempting to steamroll hardworking Americans by silencing or disregarding communities’ voices in determining where pipelines, highways, and other large projects should be built. Example after example shows the foolishness of that approach for the environment and public health. One only needs to look at certain communities that were built 50 years ago—before NEPA and other environmental laws existed—to see the detrimental impacts of this type of decision-making. In a particularly stark example, a low-income community in Orlando, Florida, continues to suffer the consequences of short-sighted transportation policy decisions that left the neighborhood surrounded by highways, isolated from the rest of the city, and trapped in a haze of air pollution.

While the Trump administration is proposing measures to sell out our air, water, and national parks to corporate polluters, it is ignoring tangible steps that it could take without gutting environmental protections. An important first step would be to implement laws already on the books. In 2012 and 2015 respectively, Congress enacted two pieces of legislation—the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) and Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act—that contain provisions aimed at expediting the permitting process that are not fully implemented, such as measures to reduce duplication; track the progress of project delivery; integrate mapping and other data tools with fiscal management systems; and facilitate efforts to align historic preservation regulations. Congress also created the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council to manage the permitting process for certain complex projects.

Implementing new laws takes time, and layering new provisions only makes it harder. In March 2017, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) inspector general found that DOT delayed implementing a significant number of MAP-21’s reforms because they had to stop midstream and comply with additional provisions mandated in the FAST Act. Rather than understanding and deploying the tools it already has, the Trump administration has jumped to the nuclear option—radical environmental rollbacks that grease the process for corporations at the expense of air and water quality and wildlife.

The best way for the Trump administration to speed up permitting without sacrificing environmental protection is to adequately fund the relevant federal agencies involved in the permitting and environmental review process. Without funding, the federal agencies cannot hire and train staff to complete environmental reviews or invest in technology that provides efficiencies. In DOT’s “how-to” guide for environmental reviews, the agency notes that limited budgets and staff resources preclude many regulatory and resource agencies from assigning staff to work on reviews when they may already be strained to process pending workload in a timely manner. Instead of funding these professionals to provide the best information to make informed decisions, the Trump administration has proposed slashing agency budgets and undertaken the greatest assault that has ever been seen in the history of this country on these agencies that protect clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks.

With such a public record of promoting the interests of corporate polluters over communities and the environment, no one should be fooled by Trump’s infrastructure scam. It is little more than a Trojan horse designed to gut the environmental protections that are necessary for the clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks that truly make America great.

Christy Goldfuss is the senior vice president for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. Alison Cassady is the managing director for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center

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A World Without NEPA: Uranium Mining in Utah

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed in 1969. NEPA requires government agencies to assess significant environmental and public health impacts of major federal actions before the decisions are finalized, to inform the public of those impacts and to solicit input on the proposal and reasonable alternatives. NEPA accounts for the fact that while corporations may profit from major project approvals, it’s the public, and the environment, that must live with the consequences. It is the law that ensures that informed decision-making, public engagement and accountability are components of a huge range of federal actions from managing our public lands and approving massive projects like dams and logging operations to insecticide and chemical permitting. These types of decisions often dramatically impact the health and resilience of human communities as well as threatened and endangered species and other wildlife.
But NEPA’s requirement for transparency, for consideration of public input and project alternatives doesn’t sit well with everyone. Over the last several years, hundreds of pieces of legislation have been introduced that would weaken NEPA or waive it entirely. The 115th Congress alone has already been the source of over 40 such proposals that would waive NEPA or limit the scope of its analyses. The bills have attacked NEPA in different realms — sometimes for highway projects and dams, other times for logging projects. The strategy of slowly eroding the core provisions of NEPA is troubling. Now, under the guise of “modernizing NEPA” the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep Rob Bishop of Utah — an avid opponent of NEPA and the Endangered Species Act — is holding a hearing targeting the NEPA as a whole.
If this agenda succeeds, millions of Americans and scores of local governments could lose notice about impacts that projects will have on their communities and lose their voice in federal decisions.
The Cautionary Tale of Uranium Mining in Utah

If there is one example that clearly illustrates the value of subjecting agency decision-making to public scrutiny, it is the impact and clean-up of the Atlas Uranium Mill tailings, a waste by-product of uranium mining, on the banks of the Colorado River in Chairman Bishop’s home state of Utah.

The United States’ first commercially operated uranium mill was built on the bank of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah in 1956 and expanded by the Atlas Minerals Corporation beginning in 1961. This facility extracted yellowcake uranium for nuclear bombs and reactors from ores trucked from over 300 mines on the Colorado Plateau.
Without the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its mandated review process, the mine’s potential impacts on the environment and community health were not made public when the government approved the project, and the public was given no opportunity to weigh in on alternatives or propose mitigation options.
Since then, the slime-like wastes from the mill, laced with radium, uranium, thorium, polonium, ammonia, molybdenum, selenium and nitrates, were slurried into an unlined pond in the floodplain of the river. As the need for a larger waste site grew, contaminated soils were bulldozed up to raise the sides of the tailings impoundment. By 1984, when the mill was finally put on standby, the pile of radioactive wastes had grown to 12 million tons, covering 130 acres to a depth of 110 feet.

The Atlas site is the fifth largest uranium tailings pile in the United States and by far the most dangerously polluted. Today’s discharge of contaminated groundwater into the river is estimated at 110,000 gallons per day.
The removal of the radioactive waste from Moab is expected to take in excess of 10 years to complete. The cost of the relocation was originally estimated to be $300 million, but 2008 Department of Energy estimates are in excess of $720 million. Groundwater treatment will continue for approximately 75 years to the cost of $70 million. Atlas Corporation, the former owner, left behind a painfully underestimated reclamation bond of $4.5 million.

While the mill’s initial approval was not subject to NEPA, thankfully, the decision of what to do with the contamination was. On April 6, 2005, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Moab mill site recommended moving the 12 million tons of radioactive waste by train to a new site in Crescent Junction thirty miles north of the Colorado River — finally limiting further damage to the environment and public health.
This victory was made possible through NEPA and the forum it provided for the remarkable outpour of public comments during the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIS) stage to be heard. This public involvement included comments from a bipartisan coalition of western Governors from Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, who together sent a strongly worded letter to the Department of Energy stating that the only solution acceptable to them was the removal of the wastes to a safe location. A bipartisan western congressional coalition, which included members of the House Resources Committee, also participated in the NEPA process by submitting similarly strong letters, as did several major downstream water districts.
The successful use of NEPA in facilitating the Atlas mill cleanup, is a great example, but it is hardly unique. Examples from across the country show that when NEPA is adequately employed, it faithfully protects our health, our homes, our treasured public lands and wildlife and our environment generally.
So why should we care if NEPA is under attack?
We should care what happens to NEPA because our right to be informed of significant impacts to the environment and to our communities is on the line, along with our ability to have a say and hold the government accountable for major federal decisions. In short, we should care because the health and safety of our communities, our air and water, our public lands and wildlife and our environment are on the line. The National Environmental Policy Act may be a law you have never heard of, but it makes a big difference in keeping our communities and our environment safe.

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