Interior flagged projects to expedite during pandemic

By Heather Richards, Kelsey Brugger | 09/02/2020 01:52 PM EDT

The Interior Department flagged for the White House dozens of high-profile fossil fuel projects it could push through environmental review during the pandemic, according to newly released documents.

A rendering of the Jordan Cove natural gas export project in Oregon.

A rendering of the Jordan Cove natural gas export project in Oregon. Jordan Cove LNG

This story was updated at 3:14 p.m. EDT.

The Interior Department flagged for the White House dozens of high-profile fossil fuel projects it could push through environmental review during the pandemic, according to newly released documents.

The list, obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, came in response to an executive order President Trump signed in June evoking emergency authorities to circumvent environmental review and speed up construction of major projects during the coronavirus pandemic.


Projects on the list included high-profile and divisive ones like the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal in Oregon (Greenwire, June 4).

The order built on the Trump administration’s yearslong energy-embracing agenda. In recent months, he has used the public health crisis to propel myriad deregulatory efforts, which critics lament would sidestep environmental protections and exacerbate climate change.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at CBD, called the list a "massive giveaway" to oil and gas companies.

"The danger is that there is this top-down pressure to approve things," Hartl added. "That’s what the career people are saying — they feel rushed to approve things. Now you have this emergency order on top of this."

He added: "Poisoning our air and killing endangered wildlife won’t help fight the coronavirus."

CBD, an environmental groups, filed a lawsuit against the administration after the White House declined to produce the list of projects that the order intended to speed up (E&E News PM, July 9).

The Interior Department list, written by Katharine MacGregor, an Interior official, and addressed to Larry Kudlow, assistant to the president for economic policy, is the first document the group received. The Associated Press first reported on the document.

MacGregor notes that the listed projects are within Interior’s authority to propel forward, and that under previous orders, many are already on a more expeditious track.

"All of these projects will assist in the Nation’s economic recovery," she wrote.

Several of the projects on the June list have since completed environmental review and are awaiting records of decision, including a 5,000-well oil and gas project in Converse County, Wyo.; a major expansion of ConocoPhillips’ Willow project in northern Alaska; and a new management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that contemplates opening most of the 23-million-acre reserve to oil and gas leasing.

Some of the listed projects have long navigated the National Environmental Policy Act process and are only recently approaching a federal decision, such as the Converse County project, which began in 2014.

And others are still pending further review, like the Vineyard Wind offshore wind project, which would be the first offshore wind facility to clear federal permitting, and the Farmington Mancos-Gallup resource management plan amendment, which may expand drilling opportunities near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park but has had its public comment period extended due to COVID-19’s impact on Native communities in the vicinity and pushback from local government leaders.

Andrea Woods, a spokesperson at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, dismissed the notion that the order would circumvent environmental analysis. "Our focus is on reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens that can delay much-needed projects and hold back the American economy," she wrote in an email. "Under this EO, agencies must continue to comply with all existing laws protecting our environment, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act and other statutes."

A spokesman for the Interior Department did not directly address MacGregor’s list or questions about the legality of expediting the environmental review process. "For far too long, critically important infrastructure, energy and other economic development projects have been needlessly paralyzed by federal red tape," Interior spokesman Conner Swanson said in an email.

"The Trump Administration has taken significant steps to improve the federal government’s decision-making process, while also ensuring that the environmental consequences of proposed projects are thoughtfully analyzed."

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said she doesn’t believe the "administration’s efforts to complete NEPA in a more timely manner" would make any of the listed projects more vulnerable to litigation from environmental groups. Those groups will sue regardless, she said.

Neither did Sgamma see the expedition request as rushing the process. Environmental groups have used NEPA as a delay tactic, dragging out projects and increasing their costs, she said.

"The Trump administration has been bold enough to take on the problem of crumbling infrastructure caused by endless NEPA delays, and it inevitably will have to play out in courts," she said. "Hopefully, courts will recognize that a better balance needs to be achieved."

Hilary Tompkins, a former solicitor for Interior during the Obama administration and a current partner at the American-British law firm Hogan Lovells, said MacGregor’s letter didn’t appear to use emergency measures from the president’s June executive order.

"I think it remains to be seen if there is any application of the emergency authorities that the E.O. references," she said. "I think [Interior officials] are being cautious and applying their existing authority under NEPA in a way that is very typical of how Interior reviews these projects."

The executive order called on agencies to determine if there were any projects that have been affected by the pandemic that agencies could use their existing authority to address, Tompkins said.

If you want to use "alternative measures" to expedite NEPA, there is a process for that, which the MacGregor letter and list doesn’t appear to invoke, she said.

In that case, the agency would have to go to the CEQ for a green light. "It remains to be seen" if agencies have sought that path, Tompkins said.

Already, the administration has prioritized several projects, noted Christi Tezak of ClearView Energy Partners LLC. Those included Jordan Cove, Alaska LNG, Gulf LNG and Vineyard Wind.

"So no surprises from our perspective, the ones we are following are already ‘prioritized’ in the overall federal permitting process as FAST-41s," she wrote in an email.

Hartl noted that some of the projects identified in the document have been in the works for decades, like the Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement. He called it "one of the most complicated projects in the world."

"I think there are some projects that were put on that list to make it look longer and more impressive than it is," he said. "Some of the projects probably had nothing to do with this order. It’s a little unclear."

He added that it’s strange that Trump officials have been so "obstructive" about producing the records. It would seem that the administration would want to broadcast its deregulatory push before Election Day, he noted.

"It’s kind of remarkable," he said. "[Interior Secretary] David Bernhardt loves shouting all of the wonderful things he’s doing for Trump."