Late-Night Interior Department Order Seeks to Shortcut Environmental Reviews

Sep 6th, 2017 Written by suwa

Interior Order sets arbitrary process for completing complex environmental review; poses a direct threat to local community involvement in decision making

September 6, 2017

Stephen Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, 801.428.3981

Salt Lake City (Sept. 6, 2017): Heading into last week’s Labor Day weekend the Interior Department quietly issued a Secretarial Order that radically alters how the Department and its agencies prepare environmental analyses and disclose their actions to the public under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA.  The Order applies to all Interior Department environmental impact statements and provides that additional orders will be issued shortly regarding the more commonly prepared environmental assessments.  These environmental studies are mandated by federal law and are the principal way that the agencies like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review proposed projects and get public input before committing to actions that will impact the public and local communities.  The Order describes these reviews as “needlessly complex” and suggests that they are “impediments to efficient and effective review.”

The order would set arbitrary deadlines and length requirements for EISs, by:

  • Requiring that EISs be completed in one year from start to finish.
  • Mandating that analysis be no more than 150 pages in length, or 300 pages where the proposal being evaluated is “unusually complex.”

“This order undercuts NEPA’s fundamental purposes of ensuring public oversight and informed decision-making, mandating arbitrary timeframes and page limits and setting up another compressed, closed door review,“ said Nada Culver, Senior Director of Agency Policy for The Wilderness Society. “There is no good reason to shortcut or sidestep opportunities for the American public to have a say about what happens on their lands”.

“The Moab Master Leasing Plan, which took several years of environmental review, analysis and stakeholder engagement, is a great example of how BLM’s NEPA review process works,” said Mary McGann, Grand County (Utah) councilwoman.  “Though the environmental review process took several years, at the end of the day BLM threaded the needle and arrived at a decision which protected places like Arches National Park and gave all parties certainty about the future of oil, gas and mineral development in the heart of Utah’s redrock country.  That careful, collaborative approach wouldn’t have been possible under Interior’s new scheme.”

“As the controversy surrounding impacts to the Standing Rock Sioux by the Dakota Access Pipeline showed, defective environmental review documents have led to public outcry, injustice that could easily have been avoided, and the perception that federal agencies don’t care about people or environmental values,” said Ted Zukoski, staff attorney with Earthjustice.  “Secretary Zinke should focus on the quality of analysis and encouraging public involvement, not how fast he can please industries seeking profit at the expense of our communities and our beloved national parks, wildlife refuges, and rivers.”

“This Order is exactly the type of late-night shenanigans we expect from Secretary Zinke’s Interior Department,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  “The Order will result in poorer, more hastily made decisions that we expect will favor extractive industry at the expense of our federal public lands.”

“These late night orders undermine public participation.  They are the latest in a growing number of actions from Secretary Zinke that strike at the heart of our public lands, waters and national parks,” said Ani Kame’enui, director of legislation and policy at the National Parks Conservation Association.  “This Department of Interior’s actions put at greater risk our country’s places of community, origins of history and culture and some of our most iconic landscapes. We are highly concerned that this order could prioritize fast track development over the health and safety of our parks and their visitors.”

The Order risks the following consequences that will undermine the requirements of NEPA to ensure both public input and informed decision-making:

  • Public, tribal and local, state and federal agency input will have less importance and impact:  The Interior Department agencies will have far less time to take the public’s input into account.  Interior Department agencies will spend less time working with, or considering the input of, cooperating agencies.  It also means consultation with tribal governments will likely be less rigorous.
  • Federal agencies may miss key data: When encountering a significant issue – such as air quality – which requires complex modeling, agencies won’t have the time to do new studies.  It might also deprive the agency the opportunity to perform multiple-year surveys, which may be necessary to understand impacts on wildlife and local communities.
  • Federal agencies may have to spend the same amount in a shorter period: This will mean more resources spent over the short-run.
  • Even more cuts to public oversight and acknowledgment of potential harms before decisions are made. Federal agencies will be recommending yet further narrowing of public input and thoughtful decision-making through a mandated 30-day review, without any oversight or disclosure.
  • Federal agencies will make more mistakes: Cutting corners will mean federal agencies will lose opportunities to build public support for controversial actions and will be more likely to approve needlessly harm to the public health and the environment that further analysis could help avoid.