The Bureau of Land Management may not need to consider environmental impacts when making long-term plans for the country’s 245 million acres of public land, a document first obtained and reported by Bloomberg Environment last week revealed.
The document indicated the bureau was considering big revisions to its land management planning processes, though the bureau has not formally proposed the idea.
However, if enacted, the rule change may remove environmental study requirements from federal land-use planning. As it stands, the National Environmental Policy Act requires the bureau to consider how opening up public land to development and activity could impact the environment.
For Wyoming, where 18.4 million acres of land fall under the BLM’s purview, the consequences of “removing NEPA requirements from planning regulations,” as suggested in the document, could be dramatic. Conservationists expressed swift and widespread alarm over the possible rollback. But to several public officials and energy groups in the Equality State, curtailing the act’s reach may not be such a bad move. Many say they’ve grown frustrated with what they consider lengthy and cumbersome environmental reviews.
Sweetwater County Commissioner Wally Johnson shared his frustrations with the near-decadelong development of a resource management plan by the BLM’s Rock Springs field office. To him, the amount of time taken to complete the plan is unreasonable and stands as an example of NEPA’s harm to county governments.
“That document is extremely important to Sweetwater County and it’s just taking a great deal of time,” Johnson said. “When you delay (the resource management plan), it affects the drilling and production that comes from oil and gas that is critical to us.”
A majority of Sweetwater County also consists of federal land and a meaty portion of the county’s budget relies on oil and gas activity, he noted. Though Johnson agrees there needs to be some consideration of environmental impacts to protect critical land, in his mind the act goes too far and regulations needs to be “streamlined.”
Wyoming produces more energy on federal land than almost any other state in the country, requiring many operators to complete National Environmental Policy Act environmental reviews and obtain permits at multiple levels of government.
Ryan McConnaughey, communications director of Petroleum Association of Wyoming, cautioned it may be too early to jump to conclusions.
“At this point, any changes to NEPA during the planning phase are purely speculative,” he wrote in an email. “Proposed changes will go through the full rule-making process including public comment.”
But he also shared Johnson’s concerns over the damage the act’s requirements can have on proposed oil and gas projects’ timelines and budgets.
“Environmental analysis is important, but bureaucratic paralysis helps no one,” McConnaughey stated. “Long-term delays due to NEPA can often outlast a development’s initial purpose and economic viability resulting in an exponential loss in investment to producers and the State of Wyoming.”
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In addition to influencing the resource management planning process, the National Environmental Policy Act requires the government to undertake sweeping environmental reviews of each proposed infrastructure project, investigating how potential development could impact the nation’s land, air, wildlife and water resources.
But John Rader, a conservation advocate at Wyoming Outdoor Council, is worried. He’s worried for Wyoming’s wildlife, cultural sites and historic trails if the BLM follows through with erasing environmental considerations from its planning processes.
“Some of our most treasured resources are on that landscape,” he said. “What this proposal means — if it really goes through — is that BLM wouldn’t even evaluate the risk to these resources. It would entirely cut out the public’s chance to participate in the management of our own lands. It’s essentially gutting NEPA.”
Resource management plans provide a long-term look at how public land and minerals should be managed. Each field office considers whether public land should be open to activity or if the land needs protection.
“It’s a really important landscape-scale look at how our lands and resources should be managed,” said Shannon Anderson, an attorney for Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group.
What’s more, the act also adds a critical pathway for the public to engage in the federal government’s decisions over the country’s vast lands.
“It is really important that there is a robust public comment participation process,” Anderson said. “... The agencies don’t know everything and are not out on the ground the way people are.”
Recent rumblings over the National Environmental Policy Act’s fate came just weeks after the Trump administration proposed a formal rule change to the 50-year-old act.
The U.S. Council on Environmental Quality received a directive from President Donald Trump in 2017 to update the rules, which Trump considered a major barrier to completing critical infrastructure developments — pipelines, wind turbines, roads and more. The agency released a draft set of rules for public review last month.
Federal regulators will have a mandate under the new rules to complete environmental reviews within two years. Environmental assessments will need to be completed on a one-year timeline. Right now, environmental impact statements take an average of 4.5 years.