President Donald Trump meets with tribal, state and local leaders at the White House on June 28, 2017. Photo: White House

Interior Department tries to streamline lengthy environmental review process

The Department of the Interior is attempting to reform the lengthy environmental review process, an initiative that could benefit Indian Country.

An August 31 order issued by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt requires agencies at Interior to limit environmental impact statements to 150 pages, or 300 pages for "unusually complex projects." But more significantly, it suggests a "target" of one year for agencies to complete a final environmental impact statement after issuing a notice of intent under the National Environmental Policy Act.

"In recognition of the impediments to efficient development of public and private projects that can be created by needlessly complex NEPA analysis, I am issuing this order to to enhance and modernize the department's NEPA processes," Bernhardt, who joined Interior on August 1 after being confirmed by the Senate, wrote in the directive.

Environmental impact statements are typically required for land-into-trust applications and for certain energy development projects on reservations. Reviews usually take years to complete and, in some instances, have caused tribes to lose out on million of dollars in economic benefits, according to a 2015 report from the Governmental Accountability Office.

A one-year deadline would have helped the Cowlitz Tribe restore its homelands and build its economy much quicker. Instead, it took four years between the notice of intent and the final environmental impact statement for its land-into-trust application in Washington.

Due to litigation over NEPA and related issues, it took seven more years for the site to be placed in trust. Another year passed before the legal challenge officially ended.

The tribe now employs 1,000 people at its ilani Resort, which opened in April and represented a $510 million investment. A convention center is already on the way and future developments on the 152-acre reservation in Clark County include a hotel.

In another project, the Southern Ute Tribe, a major player in the energy industry, is going through the NEPA process in order to expand drilling activities on its reservation in Colorado. But the BIA and the Bureau of Land Management, another agency at Interior, already missed a "spring 2017" deadline to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement for the work.

Previously, it took the BIA and the BLM seven years -- from 1995 to 2002 -- to complete a final environmental impact statement for similar activities on the reservation. One of the tribe's leaders, council member Kevin Frost, has repeatedly spoken to the Trump administration -- including the president -- about the complexities of the process.

"All you want is the freedom to use them, and that’s been the problem. It’s been very difficult, hasn’t it?" President Donald Trump said at the White House in June with Frost at his side. "It will be a lot easier now under the Trump administration."

Trump followed up that meeting with an executive order aimed at streamlining environmental reviews. Bernhardt's directive cites the order as justification for improving the NEPA process.

Despite the bottlenecks, Interior's directive allows for flexibility. The page limit, for example, can be extended so long as a higher-level Assistant Secretary, such as the yet-unnamed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, approves. The one-year timeline can also be exceeded with sign-off from an Assistant Secretary, according to the order.

Relevant Documents:
Streamlining National Environmental Policy Reviews and Implementation of Executive Order 13807, "Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects"‎ (August 31, 2017)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
President Trump promises 'freedom' for tribes seeking to exploit their resources (June 29, 2017)