Trump administration is gutting the bedrock of US environmental law

Trump administration is gutting the bedrock of US environmental law
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In its rush to sell oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Trump administration isn’t just threatening to destroy one of our last pristine and untouched wild places. It is undermining fundamental elements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

That means that, in addition to permanently harming the birthplace of the Porcupine Caribou Herd — which is vital to sustaining indigenous communities in both Alaska and Canada — the government’s reckless plan for oil drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is imperiling wolves, threatened polar bears, more than 200 bird species, and one of our bedrock environmental laws. 

As the former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regional director for Alaska, I oversaw dozens of the agency’s decision-making processes and I can say with certainty that the government’s fast-tracking of an environmental impact statement for a lease sale does not allow time for a thorough public process and analysis as required by NEPA.

 

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The Interior Department is attempting to finish an abbreviated, 150-page environmental impact statement in one year, even though a thorough EIS typically takes two to three years to complete. Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt ordered the “streamlining” of this process last August in a secretarial order that imposed arbitrary time and page limits for new environmental impact statements. It’s simply irresponsible.

Good planning takes time. This is especially true in Alaska, where the sheer scale and ecological and cultural importance of the landscape and resources are vast and complex. It is also a matter of environmental justice, where meaningful engagement of remote communities and Alaska native groups such as the Gwich’in is a crucial but time-consuming step. 

Imposing the timelines and page limits on the EIS will mean significant impacts go unanalyzed. Tribal consultation and coordination will likely get shortchanged, important scientific data will not be considered, and the public’s ability to provide meaningful input on alternative courses of action will be compromised.

Procedural integrity, not political expediency, must drive the timeline. The federal Bureau of Land Management must identify missing and outdated information, process the best available science, evaluate potential impacts, formulate stringent protective measures, conduct intensive and meaningful government-to-government consultation, and engage the public. This takes time.

A rushed NEPA process for the coastal plain leasing EIS would be a callous affront to the Gwich’in people, for whom the coastal plain is the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” It would pose existential threats to wildlife, including the 200,000-animal Porcupine Caribou Herd, which migrates hundreds of miles each year to its coastal plain calving grounds, and the threatened polar bears that den and give birth in designated critical habitat on the coastal plain. 

It also would jeopardize the incredible 200 species of migratory birds that fly to the coastal plain each year, and violate the agency’s responsibility to the millions of Americans who cherish the Refuge as North America’s last great wilderness. 

NEPA is our nation’s basic environmental charter. It exists to ensure that decisions rely on sound science to reduce and mitigate harmful environmental impacts. Those promises cannot be met under the pressure of compressed and arbitrary time and page limits. 

The Interior Department should waive its inadequate new limitations on the EIS process for Arctic Refuge drilling

It is critical that the agency allow adequate time and commit the necessary resources to perform a rigorous and transparent study of all the significant environmental, cultural, and socio-economic impacts associated with a leasing program for the coastal plain, and to robustly engage the Gwich’in in a manner that suits their unique sovereign needs and interests. 

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the crown jewel of our National Wildlife Refuge System. It merits the highest levels of protection, and any proposed development within its boundaries must be subject to the most thorough scrutiny.

Geoffrey Haskett is the former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service director for Alaska. He is now president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.