The political fight over the Trump administration’s efforts to trim environmental reviews for new development flared across a deep divide Tuesday at a federal hearing in Denver, with climate change looming heavily and frustrations high.
It pitted a large coalition of state and local government leaders, tribal activists and community groups against powerful commercial interests led by construction, real estate, trucking and fossil fuel developers.
On one side, as a White House Council on Environmental Quality panel held its only field hearing outside Washington, D.C., those in favor of “modernizing” reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, lamented the “weaponizing” of this 50-year-old law to delay pipeline, road, mining and other projects where federal agencies play a decision-making role.
“Too often, it is used by groups opposed to projects going through at all,” Western Energy Alliance vice president Tripp Parks said, referring to efforts to drill on public land to extract oil and gas.
Colorado Motor Carriers Association president Greg Fulton pointed to delays on road expansion projects, saying “congestion on our nation’s highways now costs the trucking industry $70 billion annually.”
An environmental review for the $1.2 billion realignment of Interstate 70 as it cuts across north Denver spanned 13 years, led to five lawsuits and 148 required mitigation efforts that raised the cost by $50 million — evidence of “a broken system,” said Matt Girard, a Denver-based director of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
On the other side, WildEarth Guardians attorney Jeremy Nichols countered that “delay is a sign that NEPA is working.” Nichols submitted a petition that he said contained signatures of 15,000 Americans opposed to the proposed NEPA changes.
The 170 or so full reviews launched nationwide each year that require environmental impact statements take, on average, four and a half years to complete, White House officials said. Some 10,000 lesser “environmental assessments” are conducted more quickly.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute strongly back President Donald Trump’s push for faster reviews, which would change rules for using NEPA by setting a two-year time limit and a narrowed scope that would prevent federal decision-makers from considering climate change and other cumulative environmental impacts.
A preponderance of the 100 people who testified were against the proposed overhaul, including Colorado government leaders and environmental protection advocates. They argued that careful, science-driven reviews, tedious as they can be, are essential for democracy and lead to better decisions. NEPA reviews in Colorado ensured that building I-70 through Glenwood Canyon did not lead to blasting away pristine cliffs and re-channeling the Colorado River as originally planned.
Dozens of other opponents who could not secure tickets to testify, including Denver City Council President Jolon Clark, held rallies outside in a snow-drenched parking lot near the Environmental Protection Agency building where the all-day hearing was held.
“This is the time that we need more protections,” Clark said, lauding the NEPA review of the controversial I-70 project through low-income north Denver neighborhoods and warning of an “imminent threat” to communities if the Trump administration’s changes are made.
“To try to weaken this protection is clearly a handout to corporate polluters,” he said.
“This should not be happening”
Inside the EPA hearing room, Nebraska landowner Jeanne Crumly, facing installation of an oil and gas pipeline from Canada across her land, urged the White House officials to reverse proposed changes that would limit review of indirect impacts that are “remote in time” or place because that could mean reviewers fail to anticipate likely toxic spills and decreasing land values that reduce local government tax revenues.
And a proposed change that would let project developers conduct their own environmental impact studies, while consulting with feds, could give a foreign corporation, such as the pipeline company TransCanada, influence over U.S. federal decisions.
Native Americans led the struggle against streamlining NEPA reviews, which also include restrictions on public comment and a rule that agencies could only consider scientific studies that are deemed “reliable.”
“We sit on the precipice of environmental and ecological collapse… We cannot have an economy on a dead planet,” said Navajo musician and poet Lyla June Johnston.
Navajo high school student Najhozhoni Rain Ben, 17, studying math and aiming for physics and business, drove from her home in Shiprock, N.M., to Denver — joining other out-of-state residents from as far as North Carolina who seized the opportunity to weigh in for comprehensive NEPA reviews.
Crying as she testified, Ben said: “I am no coward. … And we do not care only for ourselves. … This should not be happening. We shouldn’t be talking about this. We should be implementing plans for the future. This is not for the future. This is for profit.”
Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor said the White House-backed changes “appear surgically designed to eliminate consideration of climate impacts.” Toor testified that residents of Colorado and the West disproportionately feel climate warming impacts, including worse droughts, catastrophic wildfires, reduced snowpack, increased 100 degree-plus days and extreme storms.
“The persistent burning of fossil fuels both in and outside our state has altered the climate,” Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Dan Gibbs told the White House officials, urging continued reviews that address wide impacts. Proposed trims of the process would undermine NEPA, Gibbs said.
John Putnam, the Colorado health department’s environmental programs chief, pointed to the ozone air pollution for which Colorado now ranks among the most serious violators of federal air quality health standards as “the ultimate cumulative or indirect impact” because it comes from multiple sources and forms through chemicals mixing in the atmosphere.
“The proposed changes seek to replace transparency and informed decision-making with a policy of willful blindness to the full environmental and public health consequences of federal decisions,” Putnam testified. “The proposed changes are inconsistent with both the letter and the intent of NEPA and must be scrapped. Limiting consideration of indirect and cumulative effects, limiting disclosures to the public, limiting environmental analysis, and limiting informed decision-making threatens Colorado’s health, economy and way of life.”
“There has to be a balance”
White House officials told The Denver Post they will give equal weight to oral testimony and 43,000 or so comments received online as of Tuesday at regulations.gov (docket number CEQ-2019-0003).
Council on Environmental Quality panel member Stuart Levenbach said testimony citing specific proposed changes, such as removal of the words “cumulative effects,” likely would make the most difference as the White House and other federal agencies conduct reviews and consider possible adjustments in their proposed overhaul. A second hearing is set for Feb. 25 in Washington, D.C., and online comments must be sent by March 10.
The challenge for the United States will be finding the right balance between comprehensive review and taking necessary action, former U.S. Interior Secretary and Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton said in an interview this week during a business forum on NEPA.
Norton said she’s wrestling with the changes Trump proposed Jan. 9, because environmental impact statements that once were inches thick now fill bookshelves. She recalled her frustrations when a beetle epidemic in western forests was destroying millions of acres and raising risks of catastrophic wildfires, yet NEPA reviews prevented faster forest-thinning interventions.
“Asking (federal agency officials) to hypothesize on and on is not going to give you the key information you need to make a decision. … There has to be a balance,” Norton said.
“There has to be a final point beyond which you stop looking at new what-ifs.”