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By Dean Scott
Aug. 2 — The Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies overseeing public lands are to consider how a range of energy projects to be sited there—from mines to oil and gas extraction—might worsen climate change effects under a White House guidance announced Aug. 2.
The long-awaited guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality also would ensure that roads, bridges and other transportation and infrastructure projects that receive federal funding are evaluated for how they might be affected by rising sea level and other climate impacts.
The guidance doesn't carry the authority of a federal rule or regulation, the council stressed, but its release was still hailed as a game-changer by environmental groups because it would ensure that climate impacts are integrated into the environmental reviews and assessments required for projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970.
The guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality triggered broad opposition from congressional Republicans and industry when it was first released in draft form in February 2010. The draft guidance was revised in 2014 to extend climate reviews to projects on public lands; that change has survived in the final version that the council signed Aug. 1.
For land management agencies, the climate assessments would affect a range of agencies that oversee public lands from Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
But it will likely apply much more broadly to projects such as bridges, dams and highways, which often are targeted under the existing NEPA process by environmental and community groups.
That concerns industry groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“While we fully support the fundamental goal of NEPA ... we are concerned that this expansion of authority goes beyond environmental protection, and in doing so has handed special interests another tool to stop infrastructure development and land management activities in their tracks,” Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, said in a prepared statement.
“We are still reviewing the final guidance, but under the new requirements getting approval for projects and land decisions will almost certainly be more challenging,” he said, hampering “our ability to build badly needed infrastructure of all kinds” and making it more difficult to obtain permits for railroads, bridges and highways, as well as energy projects on public lands.
Those projects already undergo environmental assessments under NEPA, but agencies under the new guidance are directed to quantify the direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and weigh climate change impacts in considering alternatives and in analyzing mitigation strategies.
Agencies also were directed to take into account “available data and GHG quantification tools that are suitable for the proposed agency,” the guidance said.
With an election a little more than three months away, environmental groups acknowledge that it will likely be up to the next administration to implement much of the guidance to ensure that climate impacts are fully integrated into the environmental impact process.
But the scope of the climate reviews is relatively broad and “applicable to all federal actions subject to NEPA, including site-specific actions, certain funding of site-specific projects, rulemaking actions, permitting decisions, and land and resource management decisions,” the guidance said.
Climate impacts should be considered for “all new proposed agency actions” when environmental reviews have been initiated under NEPA, but agencies “should exercise judgment when considering whether to apply this guidance to the extent practicable” for projects or actions already underway.
The Council on Environmental Quality “does not expect agencies to apply this guidance to concluded NEPA reviews and actions for which a final” environmental impact statement or environmental assessment has been issued, it said.
There were several notable changes in the guidance from its draft released in 2010; for example, the draft proposed requiring impact analyses for any federal actions that would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 25,000 tons a year or more. The final version scraps that threshold, said Sharon Buccino, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council's land and wildlife program, ensuring that projects or agency decisions with smaller or incremental amounts of emissions are reviewed.
“That is one of the big changes from the draft, and it recognizes that there is significance to even smaller projects when you are adding up” the cumulative impact of emissions for each project, Buccino told Bloomberg BNA. “I think the [Obama] administration didn't want to take anything off the table” by including an emissions threshold that effectively would have ignored projects that, taken together, could add significantly to U.S. emissions, she said.
“This goes back to the over-arching purpose” of NEPA, “which is really to help ensure that government decisions that are made are informed and we are making smart investments going forward” while taking into account impacts on the environment and surrounding communities, she said.
Focusing on the greenhouse gases relevant to projects on public lands makes sense particularly for fossil fuels, with roughly 40 percent of the coal extracted in the U.S. coming from public lands, Buccino said.
A greater focus on those emissions is crucial, said Josh Mantell, carbon management campaign manager for the Wilderness Society, given the U.S. pledge announced in the run-up to the global climate accord signed in Paris in December 2015. The U.S. vowed to cut its emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels.
“How our public lands are used are important for keeping the impacts of climate change down to a reasonable level, particularly in light of that 26-to-28 percent reduction” the U.S. pledged, Mantell told Bloomberg BNA. “We need to make sure public lands work like the rest of the economy.”
But the mining industry sees that issue differently, particularly at a time when the U.S. coal industry has been struggling in the face of declining natural gas prices and increasing regulatory pressures.
“Extensive regulatory requirements already exist that consider, address and minimize the environmental impacts of mining,” said Luke Popovich, National Mining Association's vice president for external communications.
“It would be particularly harmful to American consumers and industries who rely on an affordable supply of domestic energy and minerals if this guidance were used to further thwart resource extraction,” Popovich said. “Needlessly frustrating resource development with redundant requirements will also stifle the creation of high wage jobs that are already being lost at an alarming rate.”
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