By JAMES ANDERSON
DENVER (AP) — The Trump administration held the first of two hearings on Tuesday for a proposal meant to speed up energy and other projects by rolling back a landmark environmental law.
Among other changes, President Donald Trump wants to limit public reviews of projects by restricting the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act, which was signed in 1970 by President Richard Nixon. The administration also wants to allow project sponsors to take part sooner than they can now in drafting federal environmental-impact statements.
Dozens of environmental and tribal activists testified at a public hearing held on Tuesday in Denver by the president’s Council on Environmental Quality.
The act “is not just a tool to reduce impacts to the environment,” said Gwen Lachelt, a commissioner in Colorado’s La Plata County. “It’s a basic tool of democracy.”
Representatives of oil and gas groups countered that long environmental reviews of projects like pipelines, coal mines and renewable-energy projects kill jobs and increase costs.
That proposed changes chagrined Jeannie Crumly, a rancher from Nebraska who for more than a decade has fought plans for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. President Barack Obama canceled the project when he was in office only to see it resurrected by Trump.
“We’ve learned over the 10 years in our dealings with the pipeline supporters about falsehoods,” said Crumly, sporting a “No Oil on Our Soil” button. “The possibility that they could create their own environmental impact statement is just ludicrous to us.”
The National Environmental Policy Act, along with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, is one of the country’s principal environmental policies. The law requires federal agencies to ascertain if a project would harm the environment or wildlife. It gives the public the right to consider proposed projects and comment on them. Trump’s plan is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute and other business and trade groups.
Among various changes, the proposal would streamline environmental assessments and not require the “analysis of cumulative effects,” which environmentalists say looks at how a project might affect climate change.
The law “has done more than any other law in the last 50 years to protect America’s lands and wildlife and ensure public comment,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. “It’s completely on brand that the Trump administration is cutting the American public out of the process.”
Activists held a rally and other events outside the hearing at the regional headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Supporters of the proposed changes call the law outdated and a deterrent to infrastructure projects. They also insist the changes won’t eliminate environmental reviews. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, has released a letter signed by 17 other senators calling for the adoption of the new rules.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, issued a statement acknowledging the need to reduce red tape but said any such step must be done without weakening environmental protections. Several members of Polis’ cabinet testified Tuesday, including the director of the Colorado Energy Office.
Ben Rhodd, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, labeled the proposed changes a “direct effrontery to the sovereignty of Native Americans” because, he said, tribal governments weren’t consulted beforehand
The administration’s proposal does call for increasing the involvement of tribal governments. Another hearing will be held on Feb. 25 in Washington.