NEPA Reform Draws Supporters, Critics At Denver Listening Session
A day-long hearing at the Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 office in Denver was the scene of the first of two chances for the public to speak publicly on modernizing NEPA guidance under the Council on Environmental Quality to streamline the process for producing environmental impact statements (EIS) and clarify rules so that projects are approved or rejected in a timely and efficient manner.
“I’ve been involved with NEPA analysis for many years. The first time I was involved with preparing an environmental impact statement back in the 1980’s the final result was less than an inch thick. Today when we work out environmental impact statements we’re talking about bookshelves,” said former Interior Secretary and Colorado Attorney General Gail Norton in response to the Trump administration’s push to streamline permitting and review analysis for infrastructure and other projects under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The outdated regulations have slowed and impeded the development of needed infrastructure in communities across the nation. Environmental impact statements (EISs) for Federal highway projects have averaged over 7 years to complete and many reviews have taken a decade or more,” according to CEQ.
Signed into law in 1970, NEPA requires relevant federal agencies “to consider the environmental effects of proposed major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” This applies to infrastructure projects including roads and bridges, transmission lines and energy projects, water infrastructure and management of grazing, forests, and other activities on Federal lands.
The proposed rule modernization would attempt to clear 40 years of policy stagnation and the “weaponization” of rules that have increased paperwork and years-long, if not decades-long, delays in projects.
At a press conference Monday ahead of the public hearing, Norton said the expansion of EIS provisions for projects has skyrocketed, as federal agencies have moved to preempt litigation by trying to pregame any anticipated objections, only to see litigation occur at nearly every step of the review process.
“The analysis that’s really important, that gets to the critical issues for making decisions doesn’t have to be encumbered by delay and papering the process in order to withstand litigation,” Norton said. “It really ought be focused on the important decisions.”
Will Toor, Executive Director of the Colorado Energy Office, told session notetakers at the hearing that the state opposed the rule modernization. “Unfortunately the administration’s proposed changes to NEPA will move in the opposite direction” to what Toor described as Colorado’s push for renewables and climate change targets under Gov. Jared Polis’ administration. That included the consideration of “cumulative impacts” which Toor argued should remain.
Other proponents of the rule change sounded off in agreement this week, noting that important infrastructure delays hurt the communities that need them, especially in rural areas that expect to wait as much as a decade or more for approval.
“I had a conversation with my airport manager as I was getting ready to fly out and they have a runway project that was delayed for over ten years. Which is a whole decade in terms of increasing the [cost of] infrastructure that we need for air service in rural communities,” said Diane Schwenke, CEO and President of Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
“In the most extreme cases of our grazing permittees have waited 30 years to have a simple grazing permit renewal process completed,” said Kaitlynn Glover, Executive Director Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “That’s not responsible for the grazing allotment, that’s not responsible for the wildlife that depend on it, and it’s certainly not responsible for our local economies. Talking about moving forward is an improvement to the process.”
“The National Environmental Policy Act plays a critical role,” said Denver City Council President Jolon Clark at a morning press conference for opponents of the proposed rule change. Calling NEPA a “bedrock” environmental protection, Clark said, “[a]ny rollback of NEPA is unacceptable.”
Another listening session will be held in Washington D.C. on February 25.