Development projects planned for national forests have been delayed or stalled more often than sped up in recent months, despite President Donald Trump’s June executive order for work to be accelerated because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
An analysis of U.S. Forest Service status reports shows that as of July 27, about 2% of 688 major proposed projects in national forests have final decision dates that have been moved ahead since April.
About 33% of the proposed projects have been pushed back or held indefinitely, agency data shows. And some projects have been put on hold for a year or more, in part because of staffing challenges resulting from the pandemic, Forest Service officials say.
The grouping includes all proposed forest projects undergoing National Environmental Policy Act review that require an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, such as forest management plans, mining approvals, oil and gas-related projects, road construction, and others.
Projects advanced since April are mostly small projects, with final decision dates that have been moved ahead by no more than four months.
Preventing environmental reviews under NEPA from delaying major fossil fuels, logging, and other infrastructure projects has been among the Trump administration’s marquee deregulatory efforts. Trump’s June 4 order called on the Interior, Defense, and Agriculture departments to use emergency provisions of NEPA, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act to leap-frog normal permitting procedures for federal lands projects.
Also in June, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of public land nationwide, will refocus on oil, gas, mining, logging, and other natural resource extraction efforts.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is in charge of oil, gas, and mineral leasing on its own land and in national forests, many of which are rich in metals and fossil fuels. The Forest Service, which manages the land within national forest boundaries, is required to consent to land bureau oil and gas leasing within a forest.
The Agriculture Department is required under the executive order to update the White House on its fast-tracked projects by Aug. 4.
Officials Don’t Know Expedited Projects
The agencies and the White House have so far refused to identify the fast-tracked projects, and they didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Unlike Interior and Defense, which don’t publish comprehensive real-time reports on the status of projects they’re considering, the Forest Service publishes a quarterly “schedule of proposed actions” for each national forest that detail the status of each proposed project undergoing NEPA review.
The schedules are published in January, April, July and October, in addition to a version updated in real time.
Bloomberg Law analyzed the schedules for each national forest and grassland in the U.S. Of the 688 proposed projects that required an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment under NEPA and appeared on both the April and current status reports, 15 projects had been moved ahead as of July 27.
The analysis found that 230 projects have been delayed or put on hold indefinitely in that time frame.
“We do not have information on why specific projects have been pushed back,” Forest Service Washington headquarters spokesman Aleksey Minchenkov said. “We have been in regular discussions with our regional staff and they’ve highlighted complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Minchenkov referred further questions to local officials overseeing each project.
Copper Mine Advanced
The agency’s proposal schedule shows only one project, a mammoth copper mine in Arizona offered by a joint venture of mining giants
Between April and July, the date for final approval of the Resolution Copper Project was moved up from June 2022 to June 2021, according to Forest Service documents. Prior to April, the agency listed the mine’s final decision date as August 2021.
But Forest Service officials say the final decision date wasn’t affected by Trump’s order.
Though Forest Service final decision dates for the project have been shifted, the project remains on its original schedule, said Matthew Klar, Rio Tinto’s chief media advisor.
To build the project, Resolution Copper will obtain 2,400 acres of land within the Tonto National Forest, about 60 miles east of Phoenix, in exchange for 5,300 acres of land the company owns which will become public.
The project could become the largest copper mine in North America, potentially meeting about 25% of the country’s copper demand, according to the mine’s developer, Resolution Copper Mining LLC.
“The current dates have been coordinated/communicated up through the U.S. Forest Service Chief’s office to the Undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture,” Tonto National Forest spokesman John Scaggs said in an email.
Rio Tinto hasn’t asked the Trump administration to fast-track the project and it’s proceeding as planned, spokesman Dan Blondeau said.
Forest Service officials say they don’t know which projects, if any, are being fast-tracked under the executive order.
“We are not able to differentiate reasons for improvements on individual projects at the national level,” Minchenkov said. “Local staff have more direct knowledge of individual impacts.”
Legal practitioners and experts say each agency’s authority to expedite projects under Trump’s order remains unclear, pointing to existing statutory obligations under laws like the Endangered Species Act.
“It really lacks much detail on what it expects, and it seems more like a political announcement rather than something that is likely to have much significant effect,” Sam Kalen, a natural resources law professor at the University of Wyoming, said about the order.
Elizabeth Klein, deputy director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, said she’s unaware of any projects being expedited since Trump signed the order.
“I would like to think that perhaps agency staff are recognizing the faulty and unlawful nature of the E.O. in its attempt to misuse the discrete emergency powers offered by NEPA, ESA, and CWA to jam through infrastructure projects without adequate review,” she said.
But Trump’s order recognizes the need to find solutions to the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, attorney Bob Comer, co-head of U.S. mining for Denver-based Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP, said in June.
It isn’t clear what is being expedited, but there is no reason to expect that such projects would face additional legal challenges for being fast-tracked, he said.
NYU’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Law is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.
—Bloomberg News reporters Joe Deaux and Thomas Biesheuvel contributed to this story.