House panel calls for NEPA changes
summit daily news
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Citizen involvement in public lands decision-making could be drastically cut under a set of recommendations to revamp the 35-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), according to a coalition of major national environmental groups.
The recommended changes are part of a report released last month by a Republican-controlled congressional task force. Proponents of the changes claim NEPA is a costly and burdensome stumbling block that focuses too much on process and prevents land managers from making common-sense decisions.
But some of the task force suggestions would make it more difficult for citizens to raise questions and make comments on many public land proposals, said Steve Smith, assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society. The Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups all expressed concern over the changes.
One change would narrow the definition of major federal actions that require public scrutiny. That means a whole new range of activities on federal lands could potentially be approved without extensive public review and comment.
The panel also proposed amending the law to limit who can file NEPA-related lawsuits, creating timelines for agencies to complete environmental studies. This could include limiting the size of NEPA studies and limiting the range and scope of alternatives agencies must consider.
Democratic Colorado Congressman Mark Udall, who’s district includes Summit County, was a member of the task force, but staffers at his office in Washington said they hadn’t yet had a chance to fully review the task force recommendations. A move to amend NEPA based on the task force report is likely during the upcoming session in Congress.
“Congressman Udall is interested in making it (NEPA) more effective. But he doesn’t want to see it gutted,” said spokesman Lawrence Pacheco.
It’s widely expected that the House will consider amending NEPA based on the task force recommendations during the current session of Congress.
Advocates of NEPA change have some good arguments. The sheer length and complexity of environmental documents can be daunting for citizens who are interested in trying to read and understand evaluations of projects and associated issues.
And for companies doing business on public land, the time lag between making a proposal and getting an approval can bring a significant shift in market conditions.
“Industry finds NEPA to be a process without end,” said Greg Schnacke, of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “It provides boundless opportunities for litigation and administrative obstruction, and anything that might reign it in is welcome.”
“As it stands, the law is an obstacle to getting projects designed and delivered on time, which today means timely and economic delivery of oil and gas supplies,” Schnacke added. “It’s become too process oriented. It cries out for reform,” he said, applauding efforts to get it back to what was originally intended when Congress enacted NEPA.
“The general complaint you hear from people is that they’re willing to do the common-sense things, as far as compliance with environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. But NEPA has essentially been abused by folks bringing lawsuit after lawsuit to try and delay or block projects,” Schnacke said.
But NEPA is less about common sense, seat-of-the-pants judgments than it is about rational deliberation and science-based decision-making. And not all the delays attributed to the NEPA process are necessarily the fault of the law, said Vail’s Andy Wiessner. Instead, the land exchange expert with Western Land Group said Congress itself carries some of the responsibility because budget cuts have hit federal agencies hard.
“There’s a lack of staffing to do the NEPA work,” Wiessner said. “Qualified people are leaving and they’re not being replaced.”
“The heart of NEPA is that citizens will be presented in advance with an analysis showing the environmental impacts (of a proposed action) and a chance to comment,” Smith said, outlining the core intent of the law. “This law as it is really reinforces our principles of democratic government and helps protect our environment before decisions are made.”
The effort to short-circuit that process is not in the public interest, he added.
Frisco resident and former State Senator Tom Glass sees both sides of the issue. The founder of Western Land Group, a land exchange company, said about 90 percent of the private-federal land trades he’s involved in go through the NEPA process, so he’s had some first-hand experience.
“What I’d say is, the intentions, let the sun shine in, that’s been a big positive in terms of using the best available science (as a basis for decisions). The agencies don’t want to use anything but the best available science,” he said, explaining that the transparency of the process makes land managers accountable to the public.
On the other hand, Glass said he’s seen cases when, under the potential threat of a lawsuit or appeal, agencies have produced hundreds of pages of NEPA documentation for a decision that only required a short 10-pager.
“They’re trying to make a decision and not have it blown up by an appeal,” Glass said, explaining the emphasis on paperwork and process. “My experience with NEPA is that it’s not always about environmentalists versus developers. It’s about people getting leverage over a public process, about people who can’t win the public process using the threat of appeals and litigation (to influence the outcome of the decision). Often, NEPA is used for the purpose of death by delay, which ends up shipping the problem to another destination,” Glass concluded.
The House task force on NEPA will accept written comments through Feb. 3. Send comments to: NEPA Draft Report Comments, c/o NEPA Task Force Committee on Resources, 1324 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515. E-mail comments should be addressed to email@example.com, and faxed comments should be sent to (202) 225-5929.
The draft report on recommended NEPA changes is on the web at: http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/nepataskforce.htm.
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