U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Former Democratic governor and Obama Administration officials agreed for the need to streamline and improve the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) approval process during a panel discussion hosted by the Wilderness Society today.

“One of the criticisms of the Obama administration was overreach, regulatory overreach. And that might be a fair criticism, there may be places where the administration overreached in certain areas or certain aspects,” said Bill Ritter, current director of the Center for New Energy Economy and former Democratic Governor of Colorado from 2007 to 2010.

Ritter said the agencies involved need to better work together at the start of the process to cut down on time spent on each stage in order to give those navigating the permitting process realistic timelines for planning purposes.

“If the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is going to give you a 2030 deadline for targeting your emissions reduction, you have to build up a bunch of renewables, you can’t take 13 years to permit a transmission line, as they had done in the state of Idaho,” Ritter added.

When it comes to leasing on public lands for energy production, Ritter argued that the process currently has a “lack of balance,” but didn’t limit that categorization to the current Trump administration.

“I went to the White House with a bunch of utility CEOs or government affairs people during Clean Power Plan, between the draft and the final. And our point to the White House was we need to streamline NEPA,” Ritter told the panel.

Ritter added that it is important to balance the desire to cultivate natural resources with other uses for the land.

Streamlining NEPA is one way to achieve that goal, Ritter said.

“I totally agree with that perspective,” said Ann Bartuska, Vice President at Resources for the Future and former Deputy Under Secretary for Research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Obama Administration.

Bartuska pointed to her experience using NEPA while serving in leadership positions at the U.S. Forest Service.

“One of the things that was very clear is that over time, the process of NEPA had gotten out of hand. Where, under its pure application early on, it was very straightforward on how you gathered the environmental information you needed to help make the decision and the process moved itself forward to get the answer in a reasonable amount of time. And as the governor has said, it’s now gotten extraordinary,” Bartuska told the panel.

Bartuska gave insight into her involvement with two interagency Wildland Fire Reviews in the 1990s, “In both cases we identified the need to streamline the NEPA process, not throw it out, not to meet its intent, but to really take a step back and say what have we done to the case law, to the process that’s made it now untenable.”

David Hayes, who served as Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) during the Clinton and Obama Administrations, also agreed with the problems facing NEPA, but expressed confidence that fixes were possible.

“There’s a huge consensus on how NEPA can work and how it has worked,” Hayes said, pointing to his experience at DOI.  Prior to 2009, there were no utility scale renewable projects on public lands.  However, “By doing some common-sense approaches under NEPA, pulling together all the stakeholders early, with the developers, identifying fatal flaws early, doing serious scoping early, we, in three years’ time, three years ahead of the Congressional schedule, permitted 10,000 megawatts of utility scale renewable energy on the public lands with the EIS process taking an average of 18 months.”

Hayes added that some of the strategies utilized by DOI during that expedited process have been adopted in a bipartisan fashion and have been incorporated into the infrastructure plan put forward by the Trump Administration.

Critics say that NEPA has been “weaponized” over the years with costly litigation now being the norm, as Western Wire reported last week.  Those opposed to projects have taken advantage of ambiguous language to issue regular challenges along the multiple-step approval process, resulting in years-long delays of implementation and deterred resource and infrastructure development.

“The National Environmental Policy Act environmental review process is broken. The average time to complete an environmental impact statement under the Act is now over five years,” assistant professor at the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University James Coleman told the House Natural Resources Committee during a recent Congressional Hearing.