President Donald Trump rolled back much of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, Thursday, saying it will expedite job-creating projects.
The 50-year-old law requires government agencies to analyze every potential environmental impact of a project before its implementation, but the White House Council on Environmental Quality issued a new interpretation of the law at the direction of the president. It narrows the number of things agencies will need to review.
And while Trump has focused on the impact this rollback will have on infrastructure projects, it will also affect almost all projects on federal public land in Utah.
“If the [Bureau of Land Management] is involved, if the Forest Service is involved, if the National Park Service is involved, then NEPA is triggered,” said Landon Newell, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Everything from an upcoming oil and gas lease sale to the land management plans for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments has to go through the NEPA process. The analysis then goes through another review that allows members of the public and conservation groups like Newell’s to comment on it.
Advocacy groups also frequently sue the government on the grounds that it has not fulfilled its obligations under NEPA, which has been interpreted expansively by the courts. For example, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance forced the BLM to suspend 130 oil and gas leases in Utah last year on the basis that it did not adequately analyze the impact the action would have on greenhouse gas emissions.
Newell said according to Trump’s interpretation of the law, the BLM will no longer need to analyze the effect leasing public land for drilling will have on greenhouse gas emissions. The agency can also look at each lease sale on its own, rather than in the context of already-leased land around it.
The cumulative effects of oil exploration have led to the depletion of sage grouse habitat, for example, and could lead to increased traffic near Moab, where the BLM is set to lease over 80,000 acres of land this September.
But Republican politicians like Rep. Rob Bishop have praised the NEPA overhaul, saying that the law was too broad in the first place.
“The House and Senate were smoking something when they enacted the obscure and flowery text of that 1965 law,” Bishop said in a statement. “And since then the courts, bureaucrats, and now special interest groups have spent unfathomable resources defining it for them."
Bishop added that Congress should build on the steps taken by the Trump administration to “enshrine” the new rules as law, since they could be overturned by the next administration.
The new NEPA rules don’t go into effect until Sept. 14, but there is a provision in the document that says agencies can implement them immediately, if they choose.
That could be imprudent, though, since conservation groups will challenge the changes to NEPA in court, according to Newell. And, if they win, any project approved under the new rules could be subject to review and even cancellation.