Federal agency over Utah’s public lands quietly 'streamlines' its environmental reviews

Targeting ‘needlessly complex’ studies, internal order now limits Department of Interior officials to one year and 150 pages when analyzing how projects might affect public lands.

In another nod to the needs of the oil and gas industry, the U.S. Department of Interior has instructed its agencies to “streamline” environment reviews and impose severe time and page limits on critical decision-making documents.

With no fanfare, Secretarial Order 3355 was issued Thursday bearing the signature of David Bernhardt, an erstwhile industry lobbyist who was recently confirmed as deputy secretary, Ryan Zinke’s No. 2 at Interior.

The stated purpose is to cut out “needlessly complex” analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which poses “impediments to efficient and effective review,” the order states. But environmentalists suspect the edict, which has yet to be made publicly available, is a cover for fast-tracking industrial development on millions of acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management. 

“There is no good reason to shortcut or sidestep opportunities for the American public to have a say about what happens on their lands,” said Nada Culver, director of agency policy for The Wilderness Society.

The Wilderness Society and other groups obtained a copy of the order and forwarded it to news media on Wednesday. Bernhardt’s signature is also raising suspicions because of his extensive ties to the energy industry. 

“Allegations that the order would do anything except modernize and streamline the process are alarmist and misleading. The Department is absolutely committed to sound decisions based on an informed understanding of the environmental consequences,” wrote Interior spokeswomen Heather Swift in an e-mail.

The order purports to implement President Donald Trump’s executive order of Aug. 15  for “streamlining” infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges. Interior‘s order limits the number of pages for environmental impact statements, known as EISs, to 150, excluding appendices, or to 300 for “unusually complex projects.” It also requires those studies to be complete within one year of the agency notifying the public it intends to conduct a review.

Interior’s assistant secretaries will have one month to submit their ideas for streamlining NEPA processes. Similarly, each Interior bureau — including the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service — must submit a proposal for page limits and deadlines for environmental assessments, or EAs, which are less comprehensive than an EIS.

In recent years, a typical EIS has exceeded several hundred pages, even for routine projects, and can take three or more years to complete. At a congressional hearing Wednesday, industry executives complained that delays have derailed numerous drilling projects.

“By having EISs of a reasonable length, the public will be able to more easily digest and comment on them instead of having to wade through thousands of pages of bureaucratic speak,” wrote Kathleen Sgamma, executive director of the Western Energy Alliance, in an e-mail.

But setting artificial limits on analyses is not a legitimate solution, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and other environmental groups that say the order will lead to poor, hastily made decisions that could usher extractive industries into inappropriate areas.

“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. “We are highly concerned that this order could prioritize fast track development over the health and safety of our parks and their visitors.” 

Energy industry groups contend NEPA reforms are long overdue. Pointless environmental analyses “have crippled the ability of operators to economically develop on federal lands,” according to Paul Ulrich, chairman of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

By failing to efficiently complete its studies, Interior has undermined state and local economies and raised project costs — damaging capital investments, job markets and tax revenues, Ulrich, who is head of regulatory affairs for Jonah Energy, told the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday as it reviewed related proposals aimed at boosting production of federal minerals. 

Ulrich blamed drawn-out environmental reviews for declining energy production from federal lands at a time when overall production has increased, unleashed by a revolution in drilling technology and the advent of fracking.

Streamlining the process, Ulrich said, “will provide the running room” for potential growth in the energy sector.

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