Interior dictates review brevity
One year and 150 pages.
Those are the general limits a new Interior Department order places on the time for its agencies to complete environmental impact statements on projects, and how long those documents should be.
The order, issued last week by Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a Rifle native, is intended in part to comply with the executive order President Trump issued in August mandating that federal agencies issue more timely decisions on infrastructure projects. But it applies to all Interior environmental impact statements.
Conservation groups say the limits are arbitrary and will inappropriately limit environmental review, while an oil and gas industry representative is praising the more streamlined approach.
Bernhardt wrote that his order was being issued in “recognition of the impediments to efficient development of public and private projects that can be created by needlessly complex” analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
Among his directives, all environmental impact statements for which an Interior agency is the lead agency must be kept to no more than 150 pages, or 300 pages “for unusually complex” projects, excluding appendices. Exceptions to those limits must be approved by the responsible assistant secretary of the Interior.
The target for issuing a final environmental impact statement will be a year after notice of intent to prepare one is issued, and agencies must seek approval to exceed that target by three months. Bernhardt wrote that that timeline is consistent with the timeline established in Trump’s order for major infrastructure projects. That order sets a goal of conducting reviews and issuing decisions within two years on major infrastructure projects, meaning meeting criteria such as the need for an EIS.
In a joint news release, The Wilderness Society, Earthjustice, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said the environmental studies “are mandated by federal law and are the principal way that agencies like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review proposed projects and get public input before committing to actions that will impact the public and local communities.”
Said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society, “This order undercuts NEPA’s fundamental purposes of ensuring public oversight and informed decision-making, mandating arbitrary timeframes and page limits and setting up another compressed, closed-door review. There is no good reason to shortcut or sidestep opportunities for the American public to have a say about what happens on their lands.”
Said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, “The order will result in poorer, more hastily made decisions that we expect will favor extractive industry at the expense of our federal public lands.”
Mary McGann, a Grand County, Utah, councilwoman, said in the release that the recently completed BLM master oil and gas leasing plan that directs the future of mineral development in the Moab area required a collaborative, multiyear process that wouldn’t have been possible under the new order.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said by email that these conservation groups use the federal environmental review process to delay and halt projects, and the secretarial order “is a sensible attempt to get analysis back to a reasonable length and timeframe so that environmental impacts can be studied and mitigated without endlessly holding up energy projects and job creation.
“The order still retains the public comment process. By having EISs of a reasonable length, the public will be able to more easily digest and comment on them instead of having to wade through thousands of pages of bureaucratic speak. The Interior Department under President Obama was able to get wind and solar EISs approved in a reasonable timeframe of nine to 15 months, so there’s no reason this Interior Department can’t do the same for all types of projects.”
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Bernhardt said environmental standards need to be maintained, but review processes have become so costly and complex that they result in “paralysis of analysis, if you will.” He also told U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., that he agreed with Gardner about the need to address the drawn-out permitting process for water development.
Bernhardt wrote in his order that both the Interior Department and Council on Environmental Quality have written regulations to implement NEPA. Because the purpose of NEPA “is not the generation of paperwork, but the adoption of sound decisions based on an informed understanding of environmental consequences,” those regulations encourage things such as focusing on issues that matter rather than “amassing unnecessary detail,” setting appropriate page limits, and preparing analytic rather than encyclopedic documents, he wrote.
Bernhardt also is ordering Interior bureau heads to, within 30 days, recommend target page limits and time deadlines for environmental assessments, which are more common, less detailed documents prepared for projects with fewer impacts.