Wyoming, interior secretary eye giving state primacy over environmental reviews


By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com

Acting U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Gov. Mark Gordon are mulling how Wyoming can take a “primary role” in the environmental review processes that, by law, preceed federal projects and projects on federal land in Wyoming, Gordon said in an interview Wednesday.

Bernhardt and Gordon met twice in Washington, D.C. earlier this year and talked about how Wyoming might be more involved in the writing of environmental impact statements and environmental analyses required under the National Environmental Policy Act, Gordon told WyoFile. As a result, the Wyoming Legislature has set the issue as one of its priorities to study in the next nine months.

“The notion here would be could the state have more of a primary role in establishing the beginning steps of [the] NEPA [process],” Gordon told WyoFile in a telephone interview. “In other words, could the state organize the NEPA effort and kind of walk through it and deliver [results]” to a federal agency.

That the Legislature will study the proposal “shocked, stunned and startled,” Director of Sierra Club’s Wyoming Chapter Connie Wilbert said Wednesday.

“I think it’s pretty important to remember we’re talking about federal public lands here,” she said. “These are lands that belong to everybody in the country, not just the people of Wyoming.”

The talks with Bernhardt, who faces Senate confirmation hearings Thursday in Washington, were “exploratory in nature,” Gordon said. “Nothing concrete has really been agreed upon.”

He gave a hypothetical example of how a new system — one currently managed by federal agencies — might work.

“If there’s a project and the project is going to go out to a contractor — can the state organize that effort — the [request for proposals] and that stuff and get the initial work under way,” he asked.

Gordon has asked some state agencies to come up with questions for the Department of Interior, he said. One of those, for example, would be to ask who decides the depth an analysis must receive — whether a review is only an environmental analysis or a more in-depth environmental impact statement, he said.

Wyoming also has to figure out how the state would accomplish its share of the tasks, Gordon said, likely with an office involving only a few persons. Another issue is how to maintain consistency across counties if they, too, took on some aspects of the NEPA process.

The Legislature would have to authorize the new state office, requiring a “small appropriation,” Gordon said. At the county level, “it may be more of ‘how do we coordinate efforts between DEQ, Game and Fish,’” and other players.

The state and federal government could both reap benefits, Gordon said.

“I think this speeds up the process,” he said. “It doesn’t diminish the result. We’re really trying to be more efficient. I think that’s a good thing for Wyoming people.”

Sierra Club’s Wilbert said the state’s perspective is too narrow to represent all the owners of federal lands — the American citizenry.

“It’s really important to retain a larger perspective,” she said. “It’s essential the oversight — making sure we have good environmental assessments and NEPA analyses for projects on federal lands — remains at the federal level. This is bigger than the state of Wyoming.”

The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to examine what might happen to the social and natural environment as a result of “major federal actions.”

The Legislature’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee expects to examine “oversight of the NEPA evaluation process at the state level,” before the next legislative session in early 2020. The Legislature’s Management Council assigned the topic as the committee’s second priority after it was recommended by the committee co-chairmen, according to a summary of the meetingpublished by Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale).

“The Committee will study the possibility for the state of Wyoming to enter into an agreement with the Department of Interior to provide for state primacy and oversight of environmental assessments and environmental impact statements prepared for major federal actions in the state,” read a synopsis of the topic prepared by co-chairmen Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Casper) and Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland).

“The Committee would study enacting a legislative framework to assert primacy over these assessments and would explore the State entering into a memorandum of understanding with the Department of the Interior to assume the responsibilities of these assessments that are currently required under the National Environmental Policy Act,” the summary reads.

The committee has set three meetings for its interim work; May 16-17 in Gillette; Aug. 28-30, most likely in Casper; and Nov. 4-5, also in Casper.

At the Management Council’s March 22 meeting Greear called the proposal “a very interesting priority,” and said, “this could be a real game-changer in the state of Wyoming.”

“In a phone conference with director of [Wyoming DEQ] and with Gov. Gordon I learned that this has the potential to speed up — not shorten or in any way degredate the process — but just to shorten the time it takes to move through the process,” Greear told the committee.

“Rather than DEQ having to ask a question to the BLM and then the BLM getting around to asking a question to the contractor, then the contractor responding to the BLM and the BLM responding to DEQ, there can be direct communication on that,” he said. “And so right now the [Wyoming] Attorney General and the director of the [Wyoming] DEQ are putting together a list of questions to go back to the acting secretary to get a little better definition on the scope on this.”

The state could be involved at a range of levels, Greear said. “This goes from oil and gas all the way down to drilling wells, renewals of state, or of federal, grazing leases. This could be extremely important to the state of Wyoming and that’s why its number two on our priority list. This is something I know a couple of county commissioners, I think one from Sublette County in particular, has been working on,” Greear told the council.

The state taking primacy over NEPA would be “one of the best thing that can be done to enhance the businesses climate in Wyoming,” said Cindy DeLancey, president  of the Wyoming Business Alliance and Wyoming Heritage Foundation.

Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman, a Boulder rancher, told WyoFile he recently met with Bernhardt in Washington, D.C.

“I provided with him with some examples that we came up with locally,” of coordination with the BLM, Bousman said in a telephone interview Wednesday. One example was the recent writing of an environmental assessment for a temporary, non-renewable grazing lease on BLM property. The local conservation service office wrote the assessment, Bousman said.

“We actually did the EA for the BLM,” he said. But the federal government remained in control.

“They issued the [Record of Decision authorizing the permit], not local government,” Bousman said. “I can’t envision BLM giving up that authority.

“I have never maintained that the state or local government should necessarily assume primacy,” he said. “That assumes you have the power to override the federal agency. I have not approached it from that standpoint.”

A closer relationship with the federal agencies could speed up projects, lead to efficiencies and result in better decisions, he said. “My hope we would have a chance to put together a presentation during the interim to whatever legislative committee and come up with a proposal,” he said. “The idea would be to get legislative support for state and local governments to be participating more in-depth in the NEPA process — which would include serving on the [Inter-Disciplinary] team.”

That’s the group that outlines issues to be addressed during environmental reviews. “I am only aware of one example that a county has actually served in an ID team.”

Wyoming could be a model, Bousman said.

“We think there’s an opportunity in Wyoming,” he said, pointing to greater sage grouse conservation plans adopted by the state long before the BLM and U.S. Forest Service adopted similar measures. “Wyoming has a reputation throughout Forest Service and BLM of working well — with local, state governments, the Western Governors’ Association — to get things done on the ground.”

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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