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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Whither NEPA?

Air Date: Week of

The landmark National Environmental Policy Act faces a possible rollback as energy legislation is currently being debated in Congress. Opponents say the environmental review the act provides is sometimes unnecessary and repetitive, while proponents counter the act provides the public crucial environmental oversight of federal projects. Host Steve Curwood explores both sides of the issue with a Wyoming cattle rancher who favors stronger environmental review and an energy industry advocate who says the act is often misused as a stalling tactic.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Since 1970, the federal government has been required under the National Environmental Policy Act to assess the impact of federal actions. In recent years, some activists have used this law to challenge the rapid expansion of oil, and especially gas drilling in the West. This year’s version of the energy bill passed by the House includes provisions to limit the environmental impact reviews of certain oil and natural gas operations. Proposed changes would affect reviews of individual drilling sites of less than five acres and disposal of wastewater from coalbed methane wells, if states have already allowed it.

These states include Wyoming, where Majorie West raises hay and cattle on 13,000 acres in the Powder River Basin. A number of coal bed methane wells abut her property, and she says wastewater runoff with high levels of sodium has destroyed one-quarter of her hay meadow and left much of her best grazing land covered with salt-tolerant weeds her cattle won’t eat. Majorie West, what’s your opinion of efforts to limit disposal of coal-bed methane wastewater from review under the National Environmental Policy Act?

WEST: I think it is absolutely horrendous. To my way of thinking, there are not enough laws protecting the environment in place right now. And if these companies are exempt from what laws there are, it’s going to devastate the land.

CURWOOD: How would you respond to people who say that the National Environmental Policy Act that requires environmental impact statements, is often used as a stalling tactic by environmental activists just to tie up vital energy projects?

WEST: See, I do not believe this at all. I belong to several environmental groups and we are not against coal bed methane gas development. You know, we realize our country needs the energy. However, we are for it being done right. Powder River has a very unique ecosystem. If much more of this methane gas water is dumped into Powder River, it is going to destroy that ecosystem.

CURWOOD: So, what would you like to see Congress do about this?

WEST: I would like to see them have retroactive, much more stringent laws, require these companies to either re-inject the water, treat the water so that it can be used, and this can be done. You know, this water can be treated and yes, it does cost the companies money to do it. However, right now they are making more money than they have ever made in the history of the oil and gas industry. I think they can afford to take care of this water and do it so it’s not a hindrance.

CURWOOD: Marjorie West has been a rancher and farmer in Spotted Horse, Wyoming for the past 51 years. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

WEST: You’re very welcome.

CURWOOD: And now let’s turn to Lee Fuller. He’s vice president for government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Lee Fuller, now how do you respond to complaints from ranchers like Marjorie West that rather than less federal environmental review, practices like disposal of coal bed methane wastewater should actually be more tightly controlled under the rules imposed by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA?

FULLER: I’d say that if they look at the number of opportunities that they have to raise those environmental issues, they are more than adequate. There’s probably at least two times in the planning process by the federal government and then there’s opportunities at the permitting stage where there are points to be raised. The purpose of NEPA is not to deal with minor events like this, but to deal with much larger ones and I don’t think that simply trying to keep expanding the role of NEPA is the solution.

CURWOOD: This House bill would exempt seven oil and natural gas activities from environmental impact assessments. Why is it necessary to specifically exempt these activities from an analysis of their impact on the environment?

FULLER: Well, I think it’s first important to recognize that this is one step in a larger process and that these actions have gone through NEPA processes before they ever reached the stage that this section affects. They would have either gone through the process once at the point of resource management plan and a second time at the leasing phase. These are really minor actions that most likely shouldn’t even be under the scope of the NEPA process because that effects major federal action.

The reason why I think they’ve been identified is that there have been efforts to try to broaden the application of NEPA, in our view, to principally to try to delay decisions on projects and this would essentially say one or two reviews is enough, the permitting process on top of that is enough, NEPA is not needed in a third round.

CURWOOD: I see then, so perhaps those critics would say that this process limits the ability of the public to try to intervene in a project along these lines that they think may not be appropriate.

FULLER: Well, the purpose of NEPA is to try to make sure that all these issues get aired and then the government makes its decision. That’s been done prior to reaching this stage of the actions that are affected by this language. So that there’s been ample opportunity for the public to make their case and to have the government adjust the requirements accordingly.

CURWOOD: Lee Fuller is with the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Thanks for taking this time with me today Lee.

FULLER: You’re welcome.



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