From Westword (Chase Woodruff):
Activists with a wide range of conservation and indigenous-rights groups had been bracing themselves for a fight over a critical environmental-protection law known as the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, since soon after President Donald Trump took office three years ago. But they were caught off-guard by the specifics of what the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality proposed when it unveiled its plan to “modernize” NEPA regulations last month — including an abbreviated outreach process that featured just two hearings where the public would have an opportunity to comment on proposed changes.
“It’s unprecedented,” says Jeremy Nichols, an activist with environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “This is sweeping. This isn’t some little tweak of an air regulation or a rule that affects only a specific sector. This affects all aspects of American life. You can draw a line between any person here and a relevant, recent NEPA process — I-70, Rocky Flats, there’s so much.”
For Nichols and other Colorado-based activists, there was one small consolation: They didn’t have to travel very far to speak at the first of the two public hearings, which was held at the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional headquarters in Denver on Tuesday, February 11. There, CEQ officials outlined their plan to dramatically weaken NEPA regulations, which require federal agencies to perform extensive reviews of the environmental impacts of major industrial and infrastructure projects.
“The proposed rule is proposed to modernize and clarify the CEQ regulations to facilitate more effective, efficient and timely NEPA reviews by federal agencies,” said Ted Boling, associate director of NEPA policy at CEQ. “The revisions are intended to make the regulations easier to read, understand and follow.”
But activists say that’s just code for undermining environmental protections at the behest of powerful industry groups. As laid out by Boling, the new rules would make sweeping changes to the NEPA process, imposing time and page limits on key environmental reports, limiting the scope of many reviews and increasing the number of projects that could be excluded from the process altogether.
Because NEPA reviews include extensive public comment processes, the changes could prevent impacted communities from weighing in on proposals with potentially serious environmental implications. That’s particularly troubling to Native Americans who have long been victimized by the federal government, said indigenous activists who spoke during a public comment period on February 11.
“I think that the proposed changes are a slap in the face to our democracy, and a slap in the face to the integrity of our mother earth,” said Lyla June Johnston, an activist and member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation. “The policies of Trump tend to favor business, and they are willing to expedite business at the expense of the health of our water, our ecology and future generations.”
Supporters of the proposed change included representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, oil and gas groups and other industrial interests, who argued that NEPA reviews have become too lengthy and burdensome…
For full NEPA reviews, federal agencies prepare lengthy documents known as Environmental Impact Statements that examine the potential effects on public health, safety, air and water quality, natural landscapes, wildlife, noise and more. The Trump administration’s proposed rule changes would limit the scope of the impacts that such reviews could evaluate — especially with respect to climate change, said Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor, who testified in opposition at the February 11 hearing and was especially critical of a section in the revised rule that instructs federal regulators not to consider environmental effects “if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain.”
“This language appears to be surgically designed to eliminate consideration of climate impacts, since these are precisely caused by the cumulative impacts of emissions greenhouse gases,” Toor said. “Our agency is particularly concerned about decisions the federal government may make about energy and transportation infrastructure, or about fossil-fuel development on federal public lands in Colorado, that could undermine our state policy goals and harm residents.”
Toor was one of four members of Governor Jared Polis’s cabinet to testify against the proposed changes. But despite hours of testimony from state agency heads, elected officials, dozens of grassroots activists and other speakers from across Colorado and the West, activists fear that their voices will matter less to the Trump administration than the handful of highly paid lobbyists who expressed their support…
As hearings continued throughout the day inside the EPA’s Denver office, activists from a broad coalition of environmental groups gathered just across the street for a series of rallies outside the Alliance Center, hoping to send a message to Trump and his allies even as they worried that the outcome of its abbreviated public outreach process is preordained.
“We have no illusions that we’re going to show up and change CEQ’s mind, but at least we can demonstrate the political power here,” Nichols says. “We want the Trump administration to regret they ever decided to hold a hearing in Denver.”
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
The political fight over the Trump administration’s efforts to trim environmental reviews for new development flared across a deep divide Tuesday at a federal hearing in Denver, with climate change looming heavily and frustrations high.
It pitted a large coalition of state and local government leaders, tribal activists and community groups against powerful commercial interests led by construction, real estate, trucking and fossil fuel developers.
On one side, as a White House Council on Environmental Quality panel held its only field hearing outside Washington, D.C., those in favor of “modernizing” reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, lamented the “weaponizing” of this 50-year-old law to delay pipeline, road, mining and other projects where federal agencies play a decision-making role.
“Too often, it is used by groups opposed to projects going through at all,” Western Energy Alliance vice president Tripp Parks said, referring to efforts to drill on public land to extract oil and gas.
Colorado Motor Carriers Association president Greg Fulton pointed to delays on road expansion projects, saying “congestion on our nation’s highways now costs the trucking industry $70 billion annually.”
An environmental review for the $1.2 billion realignment of Interstate 70 as it cuts across north Denver spanned 13 years, led to five lawsuits and 148 required mitigation efforts that raised the cost by $50 million — evidence of “a broken system,” said Matt Girard, a Denver-based director of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
On the other side, WildEarth Guardians attorney Jeremy Nichols countered that “delay is a sign that NEPA is working.” Nichols submitted a petition that he said contained signatures of 15,000 Americans opposed to the proposed NEPA changes.
The 170 or so full reviews launched nationwide each year that require environmental impact statements take, on average, four and a half years to complete, White House officials said. Some 10,000 lesser “environmental assessments” are conducted more quickly…
A preponderance of the 100 people who testified were against the proposed overhaul, including Colorado government leaders and environmental protection advocates. They argued that careful, science-driven reviews, tedious as they can be, are essential for democracy and lead to better decisions. NEPA reviews in Colorado ensured that building I-70 through Glenwood Canyon did not lead to blasting away pristine cliffs and re-channeling the Colorado River as originally planned.
Dozens of other opponents who could not secure tickets to testify, including Denver City Council President Jolon Clark, held rallies outside in a snow-drenched parking lot near the Environmental Protection Agency building where the all-day hearing was held…
Inside the EPA hearing room, Nebraska landowner Jeanne Crumly, facing installation of an oil and gas pipeline from Canada across her land, urged the White House officials to reverse proposed changes that would limit review of indirect impacts that are “remote in time” or place because that could mean reviewers fail to anticipate likely toxic spills and decreasing land values that reduce local government tax revenues.
And a proposed change that would let project developers conduct their own environmental impact studies, while consulting with feds, could give a foreign corporation, such as the pipeline company TransCanada, influence over U.S. federal decisions.
Native Americans led the struggle against streamlining NEPA reviews, which also include restrictions on public comment and a rule that agencies could only consider scientific studies that are deemed “reliable.”
“We sit on the precipice of environmental and ecological collapse… We cannot have an economy on a dead planet,” said Navajo musician and poet Lyla June Johnston.
Navajo high school student Najhozhoni Rain Ben, 17, studying math and aiming for physics and business, drove from her home in Shiprock, N.M., to Denver — joining other out-of-state residents from as far as North Carolina who seized the opportunity to weigh in for comprehensive NEPA reviews.
Crying as she testified, Ben said: “I am no coward. … And we do not care only for ourselves. … This should not be happening. We shouldn’t be talking about this. We should be implementing plans for the future. This is not for the future. This is for profit.”
Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor said the White House-backed changes “appear surgically designed to eliminate consideration of climate impacts.” Toor testified that residents of Colorado and the West disproportionately feel climate warming impacts, including worse droughts, catastrophic wildfires, reduced snowpack, increased 100 degree-plus days and extreme storms.
“The persistent burning of fossil fuels both in and outside our state has altered the climate,” Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs told the White House officials, urging continued reviews that address wide impacts. Proposed trims of the process would undermine NEPA, Gibbs said.
John Putnam, the Colorado health department’s environmental programs chief, pointed to the ozone air pollution for which Colorado now ranks among the most serious violators of federal air quality health standards as “the ultimate cumulative or indirect impact” because it comes from multiple sources and forms through chemicals mixing in the atmosphere…
White House officials told The Denver Post they will give equal weight to oral testimony and 43,000 or so comments received online as of Tuesday at regulations.gov (docket number CEQ-2019-0003).
Council on Environmental Quality panel member Stuart Levenbach said testimony citing specific proposed changes, such as removal of the words “cumulative effects,” likely would make the most difference as the White House and other federal agencies conduct reviews and consider possible adjustments in their proposed overhaul. A second hearing is set for Feb. 25 in Washington, D.C., and online comments must be sent by March 10.
From the Western Council of Resource Councils via Indian Country Today:
Community leaders from across the Western U.S. traveled to Denver, Colorado today to testify at a hearing held by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the division of the White House charged with implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In the public hearing, farmers, ranchers, tribal members, environmental experts and others from across the West turned out in force to tell the Council on Environmental Quality that the National Environmental Policy Act’s public comment process promotes public participation in government decision-making, and should be strengthened, not weakened. Those testifying told the Council on Environmental Quality that the National Environmental Policy Act fosters better government decisions and prevents harm to the environment and public health.
Mark Fix, rancher and Northern Plains Resource Council leader from Miles City, Montana, spoke about how he and other ranchers mobilized during a National Environmental Policy Act review to oppose a coal railroad that jeopardized their private property rights and ranching operations. “Thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act, landowners and irrigators who live along the Tongue River are safe from having the railroad condemn their property. However, if the National Environmental Policy Act is changed, the railroads and coal companies could literally force their way across our property and our public lands and develop a railroad and a coal mine that are not needed. We must protect the land and water for future generations. Without the National Environmental Policy Act there will be little hope that citizens can protect the land and water that we need to survive.”
“The National Environmental Policy Act’s public participation requirements are especially important for landowners and others who are directly impacted by decisions related to oil and gas development, power line construction, pipeline right of ways, and other federal actions that are proposed by private corporations,” said Liza Millett of Laramie, Wyoming, a member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “The National Environmental Policy Act is the process by which those of us impacted by these kinds of decisions get to submit comments to the agency. In many cases, public comments result in a better decision. Comments help reduce impacts and often force the agency to look at alternatives and other options that it would not have considered but for the public involvement in the process.”
“For tribal communities like Fort Berthold, which bear the brunt of health problems such as heart disease and asthma from the poorly planned federal projects, the National Environmental Policy Act isn’t just an environmental protection law, it’s a critical tool for ensuring our voice. We cannot afford to lose it.” said Lisa DeVille, a leader with Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights, from Mandaree, North Dakota. “Any law that provides broad opportunities for public participation in government decisions that affect the environment and local communities shouldn’t be rolled back; rather, laws like the National Environmental Policy Act should be embraced and strengthened. The National Environmental Policy Act is one of the only avenues for tribal members to have any input on federal actions.”
“From personal experience, industry dishonesty and agency fear cause document review delays and excessive paperwork,” said Shannon Ansley, Environmental Hydrogeologist and Idaho Organization of Resource Councils member from Pocatello, Idaho. “If the Council on Environmental Quality approves the proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, there will be increased litigation on federal actions, effectively slowing, instead of speeding up, the process of reviews and approval.”
Under the proposed rules, government agencies could ignore the landscape-scale or global impacts of a project, such as climate change; public participation would be reduced to the lowest legal amount; and complex environmental reviews would be subject to arbitrary time and page limits. The proposal also explicitly allows a project applicant, such as a company proposing to mine or drill public minerals or on tribal lands, to prepare its own environmental impact statement and removes the prohibition on hiring contractors that have conflicts of interest, such as financial ties to the applicant.
The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is a network of grassroots organizations that span seven of the Western states with 15,000 members. Many Western Organization of Resource Councils members live on lands overlying and neighboring federal, tribal, state and privately owned mineral deposits, and experience numerous impacts due to federal mineral production and other federal projects. Headquartered in Billings, Montana, Western Organization of Resource Councils also has offices in Colorado and Washington, D.C.
Northern Plains is a grassroots conservation and family agriculture group that organizes Montanans to protect our water quality, family farms and ranches, and unique quality of life.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council, founded in 1973, is a family agriculture and conservation organization in Wyoming. Resource Council members are family farmers and ranchers and concerned citizens who are committed to conservation of our unique land, mineral, water, and clean air resources.