Bloomberg Law
Feb. 4, 2020, 6:25 PMUpdated: Feb. 4, 2020, 8:10 PM

Land Bureau May Exempt Plans From Environmental Review (1)

Bobby Magill
Bobby Magill

The Bureau of Land Management may stop studying how its long-term blueprints for millions of acres of public lands would affect the environment, according to a document shared with Bloomberg Environment.

Land use plans are updated every two decades or more, and govern the management of more than 245 million acres of public land under BLM control. They determine, for example, which lands are developed for fossil fuels and mining, grazed by livestock, or protected from development entirely.

The BLM may propose a land use planning rule that will “remove NEPA requirements from the planning regulations,” referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the document on possible changes to such rules that was shared with states and former BLM officials.

“We don’t currently have a timeline to start the rulemaking process for this proposal,” BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said Tuesday. “If we move forward with a proposed rule, we will notify the public, as required by law.” The BLM didn’t respond to specific questions about the proposal.

The Trump administration is considering the BLM changes alongside a broader proposal to exempt some federal projects from NEPA requirements, speed up the permitting process, and overhaul other public lands-related rules, including grazing regulations.

Current federal regulations require that all proposed BLM plans for land use undergo environmental studies. An environmental impact statement for each plan must be published, and the public must be allowed to comment.

If the BLM’s idea became a new rule, it would eliminate the need for reports on the environmental effects of land use plans. For example, if a plan proposes opening large areas to oil and gas development, the government wouldn’t be required to study the environmental impact of such a plan.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade group, said it makes sense for the BLM to remove NEPA requirements from land use planning regulations in order to align the planning process with the Trump administration’s proposal to overhaul NEPA rules.

Proposal Circulated

The Interior Department in June contacted Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R)'s office about its proposed land planning changes outlined in the document, Gordon spokesman Michael Pearlman said. Gordon doesn’t have a position on the proposal, Pearlman said.

The proposal was also circulated among BLM retirees following a Jan. 31 Washington Post report that said the agency notified Alaskan tribal officials it is considering overhauling the land use planning regulations to be “more responsive to local needs” and to speed up the planning process.

Both documents suggest that BLM is “serious about moving forward with a planning rule,” Kit Muller, a strategic planner for BLM in Washington until he retired in 2018.

The BLM’s document outlining plans to eliminate NEPA requirements is part of the Interior Department’s drive to change as many rules as possible and open more federal lands to oil, gas, mining, and other industrial uses, said Jeff Ruch, director of the Pacific Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Public comment and environmental reviews take time, but they’re necessary because the plans are complex and have far-reaching impacts for many years, according to Nada Culver, vice president for public lands and senior policy counsel for the National Audubon Society, an environmental group focused on birds.

“We’re talking about decisions that will govern millions of acres for decades, so having this additional time is very valuable for the public,” she said.

The U.S. Forest Service similarly attempted to exempt national forest plans from NEPA during the George W. Bush administration, but a federal court struck down that effort in Citizens for Better Forestry v. USDA in 2007 because it violated NEPA and other federal laws.

“If the BLM proceed with this proposal, it will certainly be challenged, and I suspect that, like the FS [Forest Service], the BLM will lose,” Mark Squillace, a natural resources law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said.

(Adds comment from Kathleen Sgamma in eighth paragraph. )

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