ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — A proposal by the Trump administration to revise an environmental law fundamental to all major development projects is drawing support from pro-resource development groups and concern from environmental groups.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to assess the environmental and social impacts of proposed actions and hear public input before making decisions.
President Trump's proposal is the first update to the law in more than 40 years.
"NEPA is the law that creates accountability for federal decision makers. It requires that federal bureaucrats shoot straight with the public about what they're planning to do and take a look at whether there are better way to do what they're thinking of and be open to input from the public," said Niel Lawrence, an attorney and Alaska Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Trump administration frames the changes as a modernization of the act, but critics say the proposal strips away core values of the law's intent.
The proposal narrows the scope of NEPA by defining what type of government actions it would apply to, imposing a 2-year time limit and page limits on environmental impact statements and directs the focus of environmental impact studies on "those effects that are reasonably foreseeable and have a close causal relationship to the proposed action." The proposal also adds requirements and limitations and public comment.
The NEPA process is required for everything from building highways and bridges to making management plans for federal land. However, the oil and gas and mining industries, which rely on federally issued permits, also stand to see business develop quicker with a more efficient NEPA process.
"It's important to note that the NEPA process is not being eliminated, but instead the proposal is to update an antiquated regulatory system which will help industry meet the growing demand for cleaner energy and will act to unlock job-creating projects currently stuck in an outdated process," Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association said in a statement to Channel 2. "Streamlining NEPA will remove bureaucratic barriers that have hindered the types of infrastructure for the US to deliver energy in a safe and environmentally protective way."
The most high profile project in Alaska currently in the NEPA process is the permit application for the Pebble Partnership's mine in Southwest Alaska. The creation of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and subsequent public comment period and public hearings are all part of the NEPA process.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Draft EIS for the project came in at more than 1,600 pages, yet comments from the state, the EPA, other federal agencies university researchers and Sen. Lisa Murkowski pointed out areas of concern where the Draft EIS overlooked or underestimated potential environmental impacts and required further evaluation.
"The intent to limit analysis to two years and limit the cumulative impact study essentially creates a limitation on all projects in Alaska that would create a cookie cutter approach, and it wouldn't satisfy any of the concerns that Alaskans may have with the project," Louie Flora, Government Affairs Director with the Alaska Center said. "With the Pebble Project EIS, that was so inadequate our own Senator Murkowski put in intent language into an appropriations document requesting that the Army Corps of Engineers provide fuller analysis on a number of areas. I guess if this rule making goes into effect, it could put us in a position where we're seeing a lot more environmental impact statements for major projects come out that are very controversial, so they're going to require Congress to step in and ask the agencies to do further review because they're going to be hearing from their constituents who are not satisfied with what they're seeing in that environmental document."
The president of the Alaska Miner's Association said the group is still reviewing specifics of the proposal, but views updating the law as an opportunity.
"EIS's worked reasonably well for many years and allowed projects to be evaluated by all parties, including the public, successfully. Today, EIS's are thousands of pages and impossible for the public to engage in... The key issues are no longer clearly laid out (they're there, they're just hard to find) and the lack of focus causes a lack of clarity, missed timelines, and big costs - not to mention likely litigation," Deantha Crockett, president of the Alaska Miner's Association said in an emailed statement to Channel 2.
Lawrence, the National Resources Defense Council attorney, says that the proposed rule would make it harder to establish grounds for a lawsuit against the federal government.
"In some ways, the worst part about these rules is that they characterize environmental review as a paper exercise. It's just a box the federal government has to check off," Lawrence said. "The point of NEPA is to create better projects. It's to make federal decision makers smarts, more responsive, and in the end produce better projects. And the current regulations say that. The new proposal throws that away and just characterizes it as, in essence, red tap that they somehow have to get through."
The proposed rule is now in a public comment period. You can read the full text and comment here.