They’re undeniably complex, dry, arcane and seemingly always published in painfully hard-to-read print, but the Council on Environmental Quality’s proposed changes to the implementing regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act are likely to have an outsized impact on Alaska.
That’s because, from the smallest commercial fishing boat to the most remote eco-tourism trek to the largest oil project, Alaska’s economy is inextricably linked to its natural resources and federal jurisdiction on nearly every level.
On Jan. 10 the Council on Environmental Quality, or CEQ, published 47 pages of changes to National Environmental Policy Act regulations in the Federal Register, an action that officially opened the proposed regulations for public comment. It officially marks the only major change to NEPA regulations since the council first approved them in 1978.
A public comment period closed March 10.
The CEQ is an arm of the White House tasked with implementing NEPA requirements. The sweeping regulatory changes precipitate from Executive Order 13807, which President Donald Trump signed in August 2017, directing agencies to complete reviews for major infrastructure projects within two years, among other things.
NEPA, the landmark federal environmental policy signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, was so transformative it is often referred to as the “Magna Carta” of environmental law. In conjunction with the Clean Water and Air acts, it forms the national basis for environmental protection, pollution control and land conservation.
At the highest level, the regulatory reforms are aimed at shortening the length of environmental reviews in terms of both time and page count of the final documents.
Proponents of the changes, which include Alaska’s congressional delegation, insist the current process for conducting environmental impact statements, or EIS — the most thorough reviews under NEPA — results in unnecessary permitting delays that routinely hamper economic and infrastructure development nationwide.
Skeptics worry the proposed regulatory overhaul is a backdoor attempt by a very pro-development presidential administration to weaken fundamental environmental protections nationwide.
Brian Litmans, a senior attorney for the Anchorage-based environmental nonprofit firm Trustees for Alaska, said he believes NEPA is important for all Americans simply because it requires federal regulators to examine all aspects of a proposed project or action holistically so they can make informed decisions when issuing major development permits or making long-term land-use decisions.
“NEPA doesn’t require a particular outcome and that’s one of the great things about it,” Litmans said. “It simply tries to get all of the relevant information on the table so the agency can understand what’s at stake and make a decision and I think because of that NEPA has been a success and projects can be better because of it.” The basic EIS structure involves an agency issuing a notice of intent to start evaluating a project or plan deemed to a “major federal action,” followed by a public scoping period to solicit input as to what aspects of that action stakeholders feel should be studied in the EIS.
A draft EIS is published following the scoping period, after which a final EIS is published and then a record of decision, or ROD, is issued. Public comment periods of varying lengths must also follow the publication of each version of the EIS.
Few direct stakeholders dispute the value of its core goals, but a largely Republican group of lawmakers at the state and federal levels largely in Western states where federal land ownership is extensive has grown increasingly frustrated at the persistent growth of NEPA reviews, particularly environmental impact statements.
Part of that is because the NEPA framework is so commonplace in federal agencies. The simple process is used to adjudicate mines and oil developments, public land-use plans and road construction projects.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, for one, said the rulings in NEPA-related lawsuits that have piled up over the decades have led to an unrealistic burden on EIS drafters, or NEPA practitioners, as they are often known.
They must account for so much case law, often from seemingly unrelated issues or projects, that writing an EIS has become a practice in writing a “legally defensible” document as much as it is conducting a thorough environmental review, according to Sullivan and others.
“This is something my Democrat colleagues agree is a problem; my Republican colleagues certainly agree it’s a problem: this big issue that under our federal permitting system and to some degree state and local, but a lot of it’s federal — that you have this super-long lead time that’s required for any major infrastructure project,” Sullivan said in an interview. “Of course, it costs money and it costs time. Money and time are usually enhanced by litigation and it makes it very difficult for us to build stuff.”
Eric Fjelstad, an Anchorage-based partner with the national business law firm Perkins Coie, has spent roughly 20 years working on NEPA issues. He believes the current system benefits no one — except maybe attorneys.
That’s because there is nearly always a contingent that opposes a large project or major federal planning decision for a myriad of reasons. Those groups then regularly sue the decision-making agencies to overturn a record of decision or delay the process based on perceived legal flaws in a given EIS.
“It’s devolved into somewhat of, I’ll call it a ‘gotcha’ review process where the process is a series of hurdles with people playing different roles and ultimately the courts at the end exacting a gotcha sanction,” Fjelstad.
“Is there any realistic world where it should take four, five, six years to study something at this level? And this isn’t the only study that occurs on big projects,” he added, referring to an EIS.
According to CEQ figures, approximately half of the 1,161 EIS reviews conducted from 2010-17 took longer than three years and seven months to complete. Roughly one-quarter took more than six years and the average time from a notice of intent to a record of decision was 4.5 years. About one-quarter of those analyzed took less than two years and two months to complete.
Ted Boling, an associate NEPA director for the CEQ, said during a February presentation at the Alaska Forum on the Environment conference that the council primarily wants to modernize the regulations to help produce more timely and effective NEPA reviews. The council also seeks to codify years of court rulings in the proposed regulations to clarify exactly what is required under the law, according to Boling.
“Much of that guidance and case law is reflected in modern agency NEPA practice but it’s not reflected in the regulations,” he said.
In addition, the proposed regulations meet the president’s orders by directing agencies to complete an EIS within two years and a less rigorous environmental assessment within one year.
The CEQ is also seeking to harden current guidelines for the length of an EIS. Current NEPA regulations recommend the text of a final EIS be less than 150 pages. An EIS of “unusual scope or complexity” should be limited to 300 pages, according to the regulations. It’s 75 pages for an environmental assessment.
The new regulations would make those recommendations mandatory in most cases.
However, the 2010-17 EIS review found that the average length of a final EIS from the time period was 669 pages, with about one-quarter each less than 300 pages or more than 730.
Boling emphasized that the harder timeline and length directives are “not just a get out of jail free card” for agency officials looking to do less work. The proposed regulations allow for senior agency officials to exempt certain complex or highly scrutinized reviews from the limitations.
“Ideally, the senior agency official says, ‘Yes, this is an important project so I will read more pages than usual,” Boling said.
The new language also defines reasonable alternatives, which are a required part of an EIS, as alternatives that are “technically and economically reasonable” to be in line with longstanding Supreme Court decisions, according to Boling.
He further added that the council is proposing to clarify that a project’s effects should not be considered significant — and therefore not be studied — “if they are remote in time, geographically remote or they result in a lengthy causal chain.” That also codifies a Supreme Court ruling, Boling said.
He acknowledged that it’s a “great point of debate” as to whether or not the new regulations will ultimately change what projects necessitate an environmental assessment or EIS.
“It really gets into the question of how will the case law work?” he said.
Many of the high level reforms to the parameters of an EIS were in part pulled from Sullivan’s Red Tape and Rebuild America Now bills, according to the senator. He said one of the first conversations he had with President Trump was about the need for NEPA reform.
While he would prefer to make the changes in statute, Sullivan said regulatory reform via an executive order “is really good.”
“We have been kind of ground zero for this” in Alaska, Sullivan said, noting it took nearly 20 years to reach a record of decision on the Kensington gold mine near Juneau and other projects. That project only began after a Supreme Court decision.
He dismissed concerns that the changes will weaken environmental protections.
“We don’t want to cut corners in Alaska,” he said. “It’s about timely permitting — certainty in the permitting process — so people can make investment decisions to move forward on infrastructure projects.”
‘Morphed into its own entity’
Sen. Lisa Murkowski similarly said the EIS process has become overly burdensome over the years.
“It has morphed into its own entity, the NEPA process, far beyond what the act initially required,” Murkowski said in an interview.
The legislation itself is a relatively brief seven-page bill that outlines Congress’ desire for a national environmental policy, establishes the CEQ and describes very generally how that policy should be implemented.
“The Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthy environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment,” NEPA states.
Sullivan and Murkowski said the status quo of EIS timelines and particularly lengthy documents discourages public involvement, contrary to NEPA’s intent.
“The whole point of NEPA was to bring the public into the permitting process. You do that by having an EIS that’s 100, 200 pages; something that the average citizen can sit down and read. That was the point. Public involvement, public engagement, public input,” Sullivan said.
Boling went a step further and said the council wants to make an EIS more readable for the senior agency officials tasked with making major permitting decisions based on them. The page limits are designed to help get to the core detailed statement of an EIS, Boling said, adding that appendices to the main document are “free space” that do not count towards the limit.
“We’d be concerned if people were trying to take really complicated projects and just reduce it all to 150 pages but we’re also equally concerned that decision-makers need to actually be able to use those documents,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s not a paperwork exercise; it’s designed to be something that decision-makers can actually read, digest and respond to.”
Litmans, of Trustees for Alaska, said the EIS timeline and length statistics can be skewed by a few exceptional cases. He noted that a very small number of projects reviewed by federal agencies are actually subject to an EIS. The vast majority are given a finding of no significant impact, or FONSI.
Litmans referred to a 2014 Government Accountability Office report that found less than 1 percent of projects subject to a NEPA analysis resulted in an EIS and less than 5 percent required an environmental assessment. The rest receive a categorical exclusion, meaning a formal environmental review isn’t needed.
He said Boling is “far off the mark” in saying the CEQ is simply codifying case law in the regulations.
“This rule completely guts or removes from the regulations the concepts of cumulative effects and indirect impacts. These are aspects of a project that have to be considered under NEPA,” Litmans said.
A section of the regulations attempting to define “effects” and “impacts” states that a “but for” causal relationship does not constitute a particular effect under NEPA.
“Analysis of cumulative effects is not required,” the regulations state further.
Fjelstad said he believes an EIS should be narrowly focused on roughly five to 10 areas of study that are particularly germane to a project.
“It’s the old maxim, pick a few things and bring real rigor to the table and do it right rather than trying to solve everyone’s issues,” he said.
Litmans said there is a large body of case law defining the requirements of a cumulative effects analysis and simply cutting it out lends to a whole new round of lawsuits.
“This rule just removes key aspects of what’s required in an agency review and adds new terms that will have to be defined by the courts,” he said.
Litmans also said that permit applicants are regularly the cause of delays in the process because they were not armed with the requisite information an agency needs for an EIS when they start it. Such is the case with the Pebble mine EIS, he said.
“You have a project that’s sorting things out as it goes along and as a result the reviews are going to take longer,” Litmans said of Pebble.
“The shouldn’t, in the middle of the process, while the draft EIS is being written and completed say, ‘Well, we’re going to go get some more field data this summer,’ which is what they did.”
Murkowski joined a series of state and federal resource agencies in roundly criticizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ draft EIS for Pebble published in February 2019, contending it lacks detailed information and minimizes the project’s potential impacts to the region’s salmon and other resources despite being approximately 1,400 pages.
In response to a question about how she reconciles support for the regulatory reforms with the Pebble EIS Murkowski said, “When you say a project needs a review that’s fair and thorough, that fairness and thoroughness is not necessarily measured by pounds of paper or the length of time within a process.”
Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole wrote via email that the company has not had an unusual number of information requests from the Army Corps of Engineers for a project of its size.
More people than normal are interested in Pebble and therefore the intricacies of the process have been made more transparent than normal by the Corps, according to Heatwole.
He added that midstream changes to the project did not fundamentally change the layout of the project or the company’s approach to mining the resource.
“The modifications were improvements upon the environmental impacts of the project and in many cases reduced the footprint of the project,” Heatwole wrote.
Boling said agencies can better meet the new, firmer review timelines by making sure applicants have all of the information needed at the ready and Fjesltad acknowledged that “a lot of people start when they’re not ready.”
The CEQ received 598,989 comments on the proposed regulations, according to the Federal Register. CEQ spokesman Dan Schneider wrote March 17 that modernizing the environmental review process for infrastructure projects is a priority for the administration and the council is currently reviewing the comments.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]