Released with little fanfare Aug. 31, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) implemented one-year deadlines and set page limits on all future Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) through a secretarial order to its federal agencies.
The order — which affects agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS) — has set off mixed reactions from lobbying groups and elected officials, with some praising the move as creating efficiencies and others condemning it, worried that it would “fast track” mineral development projects and limit public participation in environmental processes.
Environmentally focused groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Earthjustice and The Wilderness Society have all spoken out against the order.
“We see this Order as part of a disturbing trend to take the public out of decisions on what happens on our public lands,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel and Director of the BLM Action Center at The Wilderness Society.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies complete EIS analysis for large-scale land management planning, including complex projects like Moab’s Master Leasing Plan (MLP), which took four years from initial scoping to the final record of decision in 2016.
As the first MLP in Utah, BLM representatives say they took “extra steps” to ensure the best plan was developed, including additional public review periods.
Now, agencies must stick to one-year deadlines and limits of 150 to 300 pages, according to the order, which aims to streamline the “needlessly complex” NEPA process.
The order, signed by DOI Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, states that federal agencies can now focus “on issues that truly matter rather than amassing unnecessary detail” and “prepare analytic rather than encyclopedic documents.”
Kathleen Sgamma, Director of Western Energy Alliance, claims that many projects have been held up through the NEPA process “for years and years” under the Obama administration.
“The NEPA process should be thorough, but it doesn’t have to drag on for years and years and thousands of pages,” Sgamma said. “Doing it in a reasonable amount of time, in a reasonable sized document will enable the public to more easily comment on those projects instead of wading through 2,000 pages.”
But others, like Ani Kame’euni, the director of legislation and policy at the National Parks Conservation Association, worry that the page limits and one-year deadline would essentially weaken public involvement in environmental analyses.
“The [Trump] administration’s goal has been to ‘fast-track’ projects, and this typically means, as implied and noted in the DOI order, shorter time frames for project review,” Kame’euni said. “Shorter review time periods means fewer days for public comment, fewer public meetings, fewer opportunities to reach out to under resourced, remote, or other potentially affected communities. There is no question — less time means less public engagement.”
Heather Swift, spokesperson for DOI, told The Times-Independent “public input is very important to the integrity of the process” and underscored the order’s allowance for any necessary extensions.
The order states that any agency potentially exceeding the one-year deadline by more than three months must get approval by the Assistant Secretary at DOI responsible for the matter.
At BLM’s Canyon Country District, public affairs specialist Lisa Bryant expects the page limitations and deadlines to force the BLM to be more efficient in their word choice and the information they share through the EIS.
However, she does not expect that public outreach will be sacrificed in future environmental analysis, stating that stakeholder involvement was “crucial” to processes like the Moab MLP, which guides mineral development in the region for the next 15 years.
“I don’t see us changing our outreach,” Bryant said. “These deadlines may make it harder to extend comment periods, but there are exceptions in this order to exceed those limits where it’s needed, where it’s warranted … Public outreach is really crucial to our planning processes.”
According to local NPS representative Jeanetta Giddens, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks have not completed any EIS projects in the last five years. Giddens says the parks are “awaiting guidance” from their national and regional offices on how to implement the order’s mandates.
Swift says DOI completes roughly 80 EIS reports each year, with each assessment taking between “three to five years” to complete.
The shorter timeline mandated by the order will apply to all EIS processes, Swift noted, not just mineral development projects.
“Streamlining the process impacts every project the department assesses including solar and wind projects, building a new visitor center, and even mineral withdrawals such as the one [Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke] is supporting near Yellowstone National Park in Montana,” Swift said.
But Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for Earthjustice, said that he would be “shocked and amazed” to hear the Trump administration implemented the order in an attempt to push projects like solar more quickly through the NEPA process.
“It will have that impact, but clearly it’s not the primary driver,” he said. “It sure looks like this is about rushing to complete dirty energy projects, which is a high priority of the Trump administration and doing it in a way that limits the importance of public input including tribes and local government.”
Grand County Council Member Mary McGann called the Moab MLP a “great example” of how BLM’s NEPA review process works.
The Moab MLP required an EIS and, although it took several years, McGann said the process resulted in certainty for all stakeholders regarding the future of oil, gas, and mineral development in the region.
“That careful, collaborative approach wouldn’t have been possible under Interior’s new scheme,” McGann said.
But Sgamma called the Moab MLP simply “another layer of redundant NEPA.”
“There’s NEPA for land use planning, NEPA for leasing, NEPA for project proposals and NEPA for drilling permits,” Sgamma said. “That Master Leasing Plan was another layer of NEPA on top of all that.”
Sgamma attributes federal agencies’ years-long environmental review processes to a “lack of will” in the previous administration.
“There was a lack of will to move [projects] forward,” Sgamma said. “Documents just sat on desks for years under the Obama administration.”
But Zukoski says that environmental reviews of public land proposals are by their nature complex and time-consuming. Studying atmospheric conditions like air quality, or tracking other issues like wildlife movements necessarily require multiple years of data, he said.
“Opponents of robust environmental analysis like to say ‘there’s red tape slowing us down,’” Zukoski said. “The essence of democracy is to hold bureaucrats responsible. If the bureaucrats say, ‘get this done, environmental information be damned,’ then that is not a democratic process. They need to be forced to explain what they’re doing.”
ByBy Molly Marcello