Agency proposes changes to speed up NEPA process

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) riparian area protection fence on Producer Joe Kipp's Ranch, north of Browning on Cut Bank Creek.Blackfeet Reservation, MT. August 2012.

Back in January, President Donald Trump announced he was rolling back regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). At an event in Atlanta, GA, July 15, Trump finalized the rollbacks, calling NEPA reviews the “single biggest obstacle” to construction projects.

Describing the rollbacks as a “top to bottom overhaul,” the changes would help speed up the NEPA review process by eliminating environmental and community considerations before approving projects on federal lands. The new rules would set a two-year limit for agencies to issue environmental impact statements (EIS).

“So we’re cutting the federal permitting timeline for a major project from up to 20 years or more—hard to believe—down to two years or less,” Trump said. “And our goal is one year.”

NEPA background

NEPA was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970. The act was created in order to establish a national policy for evaluating the impacts of proposed projects on the environment. Many have argued the NEPA process is slow and bureaucratic, with the average review time taking about four and a half years. However, critics contend the new rules will disproportionality affect disadvantaged communities and have detrimental effects on the environment.

In a fact sheet, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) said NEPA is the most litigated environmental law in the country. CEQ issued a proposed rulemaking on Jan. 10 to modernize NEPA regulations, and a 60-day public comment period took place. The agency held two public hearings and more than 1.1 million comments were received.

In addition to two-year time limits for EISs, the new rule sets page limits for EISs and environmental assessments; requires joint paperwork for EISs involving multiple agencies; requires senior agency officials to oversee NEPA compliance; and allows applicants and contractors a greater role in preparing EISs.

The final rule was published in the Federal Register July 16 and will take effect 60 days after its publishing. However, if congressional review changes the effective date, CEQ will update the Federal Register with a new effective date or terminate the rule.

Industry reactions

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) praised the new rule.

“The modernized NEPA rule brings common sense back to an important rule that was established to protect our land and water resources,” said NCBA President Marty Smith. “American ranchers that care for hundreds of millions of acres of private and public lands across the United States know the importance of implementing timely improvements based on the best knowledge at hand.”

Ranchers are subject to NEPA reviews for a variety of reasons, such as renewing grazing permits, constructing range improvements, or becoming eligible for USDA conservation programs, according to NCBA.

“Over the last four decades, ranchers learned and adapted to new needs of wildlife and other rangeland users, but outdated NEPA policy prevented us from responding to many critical situations,” said Public Lands Council President Bob Skinner. “The changes finalized today bring NEPA up to date, focus the attention on the real issues at hand, and ensure the government is avoiding speculative and duplicative environmental reviews.”

However, environmental groups were quick to denounce the ruling. The Center for Biological Diversity said the rulemaking imposes “arbitrary time limits” on completion of environmental reviews.

“Oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure will now escape meaningful environmental analysis, with no consideration of harm to wildlife like sage grouse or marine mammals from drilling rigs and other projects,” the group said in a released statement. “And communities will have less of a voice in federal projects, such as whether a highway will cut through their neighborhoods, threatening businesses and worsening air pollution.”

Now that the rule is published in the Federal Register, a flurry of lawsuits challenging the rule is likely to be expected. — Anna Miller, WLJ editor

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