Obama overhauls process for offsetting environmental harm

By Corbin Hiar | 11/03/2015 01:16 PM EST

President Obama today ordered five federal agencies to streamline regulations for offsetting environmental harm and to promote independent mitigation efforts.

This story was updated at 2:12 p.m. EST.

President Obama today ordered five federal agencies to streamline regulations for offsetting environmental harm and to promote independent mitigation efforts.

The memorandum — sent to the secretaries of Defense, Interior and Agriculture and the administrators of U.S. EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — establishes for the first time a "net benefit goal" for natural resource use.


At minimum, the memo calls for no net loss of land, water, wildlife and other ecological resources from federal actions or permitting.

The directive will affect everything from government construction projects to oil and gas production on public lands. It does not, however, apply to "military testing, training, and readiness activities," the memo says.

To reach their new net-benefit goal, Obama said the agencies should "adopt a clear and consistent approach for avoidance and minimization of, and compensatory mitigation for, the impacts of their activities and the projects they approve."

The agencies, he said, should also use landscape- or watershed-scale planning to take the full impacts of their decisions into account and to pick the best spots for mitigation.

Whenever possible, such mitigation should occur ahead of projected impacts, provide additional benefits to those that would have already occurred and rely on proven methods, the memo says.

"Agencies are encouraged to pay particular attention to opportunities to promote investment by non-profit and private sectors in restoration or enhancement of natural resource," Obama wrote.

One example of successful mitigation highlighted by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality was a 23,000 acre wetland bank established earlier this year in northern Minnesota by Ecosystem Investment Partners. The Baltimore-based company will restore bogs drained for farming to their original wetland state and then sell credits to offset wetlands development in other parts of the state, according to a Duluth News Tribune story included in the CEQ blog post.

CEQ Managing Director Christy Goldfuss predicted that the certainty and incentives called for in the memo would "lead to bigger markets and more conservation success. This investment will expand the estimated 125,000 jobs and $9.5 billion in direct economic activity already engaged in restoration of natural resources in the U.S.," she wrote.

But some lands, waters or wildlife should be recognized as "of such irreplaceable character that minimization and compensation measures, while potentially practicable, may not be adequate or appropriate," the presidential memorandum says. As a result, "agencies should design policies to promote avoidance of these resources."

The memo also calls for increased "public transparency in the implementation of their mitigation policies and guidance." Specifically, there should be measurable performance standards at the project and program level and clear identification of which parties are responsible for which aspects of a mitigation plan.

Going forward, the president directed the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to develop and implement additional manual and handbook guidance on mitigation within 180 days. Those policies should be finalized within two years.

At Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service each have a year to finalize their mitigation policies. Fish and Wildlife was also ordered to create an additional policy for compensatory mitigation under the Endangered Species Act and more guidance for actions states, landowners and others can take to conserve species ahead of federal protections.

The memo also clearly states that it is "intended for the internal guidance of the executive branch and is inapplicable to the litigation or settlement of natural resource damage claims."

Environmentalists were quick to praise the memo, which has been in the works for many months (Greenwire, Sept. 24).

"The White House is setting a new precedent that human needs for food, fuel and fiber must not come at the expense of the environment," Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said in a statement. "The President is creating a path for economic and environmental prosperity because he understands that, as our nation’s industries grow and thrive, we must also protect and enhance the natural systems that sustain us.

"In calling for landscape-scale approaches, market-based solutions, and net benefit to our nation’s land, water and wildlife, the presidential memorandum will ensure that economic development spurs environmental growth, and vice versa."