Denver next week will be the site of one of two public hearings scheduled nationally on controversial proposed changes by the Trump administration regarding how a 50-year-old environmental law is carried out.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality is proposing what it calls an update to the regulations governing how the National Environmental Policy Act is implemented.
The act requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of actions, including public lands management decisions applying to oil and gas leasing and well permitting, grazing and mining, and other uses. The requirement also pertains to construction of roads, bridges, power lines, water projects and other infrastructure, and the act process provides for public input.
The proposal would streamline the act process, consistent with direction from President Trump. This includes creating presumptive two-year time limits for completing environmental impact statements, which on average now take four and a half years to complete, and creating presumptive one-year limits in the case of less-involved environmental assessments.
It also specifies presumptive page limits on these documents. Agencies on average prepare about 170 environmental impact statements a year and about 10,000 environmental assessments.
The proposal also seeks to reduce unnecessary burdens and delays through facilitating the use of environmental assessments versus environmental impact statements, or categorical exclusions from either of these forms of review. Such exclusions are already applied to about 100,000 agency actions a year.
It also would state that analysis of cumulative effects isn’t required under the environmental policy act. Such analysis is sometimes pushed by entities such as conservation and activist groups. A current lawsuit challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plan for the Grand Junction Field Office alleges a failure to consider cumulative climate impacts of local oil and gas development in combination with other development under the BLM’s national oil and gas program.
Public hearings on the proposed changes are scheduled Tuesday in Denver and Feb. 25 in Washington, D.C.. People were asked to sign up online for free tickets to attend the Denver event, and all tickets for the morning and afternoon sessions were quickly snatched up. That prompted the addition of an evening session, for which tickets also are gone.
“While there is no standby list, on the day of the hearing we will work to accommodate those wishing to attend on a first-come, first-serve basis should seats become available,” said Dan Schneider, a spokeman for the Council on Environmental Quality.
“Two public hearings to decide the fate of a landmark environmental policy that impacts hundreds of millions of lives is not nearly enough,” said Sam Gilchrist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The fact that the three sessions in Denver filled up within minutes highlights overwhelming interest in NEPA and a clear need to create more opportunities for public engagement.”
Schneider said a transcription of the public hearing will be entered into the docket for CEQ-2019-0003 on Regulations.gov, where people also are encouraged to file written comments by March 10.
The resources defense council and other groups concerned about the proposed changes are planning a press conference, rally and panel discussion Tuesday near the Denver hearing venue, which is the Environmental Protection Agency office at 1595 Wynkoop St.
Agriculture, energy, construction, chamber of commerce and other interests are planning their own press conference Monday in Denver to support the policy act changes.
Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area of Chamber of Commerce, plans to participate in that event and speak at Tuesday’s hearing.
“The NEPA process has not been modernized for almost 40 years,” she said.
She said the environmental review process for roads and other infrastructure projects can take six or eight years, and with technological changes in areas such as geographic information systems, they should be able to be completed in two years.
In a Natural Resources Defense Council blog, Gilchrist contends the National Environmental Policy Act process has proven important in Colorado, such as in causing the BLM to defer oil and gas leasing in the North Fork Valley in response to public comments, and resulting in the U.S. Forest Service scaling back plans to clearcut aspen on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.
The Western Energy Alliance oil and gas association supports the policy act changes.
“For too long, NEPA has become a source of endless delay rather than a tool for helping the government make better, more environmentally sensitive decisions, as originally intended,” the group’s president, Kathleen Sgamma, said. “The new rule will enable responsible projects to move forward in a timely manner while ensuring environmental protection.”
Information on the proposal and the Denver meeting may be found at www.whitehouse.gov/ceq/nepa-modernization/.