The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management has finalized a set of recommendations that would overhaul the way it permits energy exploration and other activities on public land by streamlining environmental reviews, according to a document obtained by The Washington Post.
BLM’s holdings, which can be used for mining and grazing as well as recreation and archaeological preservation, account for about a third of the nation’s mineral resources.
The package, which includes policy changes with immediate impact as well as regulatory and legislative proposals that would take more time to execute, would eliminate lengthy federal reviews in many instances through “categorical exclusions” if officials determine the activities have no environmental impact.
Such exclusions would cover everything from the BLM’s coal leases to efforts to euthanize wild horses and burros. Such an exclusion also would be pursued for “oil and gas wells that run horizontally from private wells into adjacent federal minerals,” according to the document.
The report and its accompanying appendicies call for establishing “targeted time and page limits” for federal environmental analyses and for legislation that would limit the number of Freedom of Information Act requests a person or organization could submit to the agency.
The report says it aims “to demonstrate greater responsiveness to local needs, achieve cost and time savings, and reduce litigation risk, while continuing to fulfill the BLM’s resource stewardship responsiveness.”
In an email Friday, BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said its revised policy brings the bureau into compliance with current mineral leasing law, “trims away all duplicative effort and other unnecessary requirements and creates a simpler and leaner process that promotes job-supporting oil and gas development, while ensuring healthy and productive public lands.”
The bulk of the proposals focus on streamlining regulatory burdens under the laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, which applies to projects that have a significant environmental impact. In a blog posted Thursday, the National Mining Association said that NEPA has become “a process for delaying projects through litigation” and caused “paralysis by analysis.”
Amanda Leiter, who served as a deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals at the Interior Department under President Barack Obama, said in an interview that “the NEPA process can be long and involved, and it can tie up projects you like as well as projects you don’t like.”
But she cautioned that ideas that sound sensible, such as making it easier to get minor environmental approvals under the umbrella of a broader environmental study, could prove hollow or destructive if they aren’t part of a thorough and sincere effort to examine real impacts.
“Overall this administration has not generally seemed open to hearing from environmental interests and local and tribal interests to the degree that it is interested in hearing from industry interests,” said Leiter, now a law professor at American University.
Industry officials have been working with the Trump administration for months on such questions, and praised the direction of the proposed BLM changes.
“We’re all for having a more efficient permitting process, and a more efficient government overall,” said Reid T. Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. “That’s something that’s beneficial for not only the companies but also for the taxpayers and consumers who benefit from the development of oil and natural gas.”
However Nada Culver, who serves as senior counsel and director of the BLM Action Center at the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group, said the plan amounts to “a wish list” for industry that relegates conservation priorities to the very bottom.
She noted that even though the report was not publicly released, recent announcements by the bureau demonstrate that top officials are following through on its recommendations. Last week it released a memorandum instructing field offices to process a proposed lease within six months and shorten public challenges to finalized leases to 10 days. Officials in the field will have the choice of whether to let the public participate in safety reviews of proposed lease sales, according to the memo.
“This list is the road map for what they want to accomplish. And what we’re seeing is them already starting down this road,” Culver said.
Zinke called for the recommendations after Trump signed legislation nullifying a BLM rule finalized under Obama, dubbed Planning 2.0, that aimed to streamline the permitting process and balance competing interests out West. While BLM land boasts minerals and significant grazing pastures, it also encompasses iconic landscapes and cultural and archaeological artifacts that draw tourists as well as researchers.
The proposed changes also come under the auspices of an executive order from President Trump last summer meant to establish “discipline and accountability” in the environmental review of infrastructure projects.
Trump’s infrastructure plan, a year in the making, is set to be released next week. It reportedly is heavily focused on rolling back regulations, rather than making major new federal investments.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality also has drafted a legislative proposal to accelerate federal infrastructure permitting, which is still being negotiated and has yet to be released. A copy of that plan, obtained by The Post last month, would eliminate some requirements dating to the 1970s under laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
This story has been updated.