Proposal fast tracks oil development in national forests, green groups say

Proposal fast tracks oil development in national forests, green groups say
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Environmental groups fear a new proposal from the Trump administration would greenlight more oil and gas development within national forest land. 

A Monday proposal from the U.S. Forest Service would severely limit the agency’s ability to call off any oil drilling slated for its lands by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which tees up leasing in federal forests.

“This proposal would basically make the Forest Service a rubber stamp for the fossil fuel industry,” Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a release. “We face accelerating climate change, fire and drought, and the last thing we should be doing is making it easier to auction off our irreplaceable national forests for destructive drilling and fracking.”

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The proposed rule released Monday removes specific references within Forest Service policy to review environmental consequences of drilling and also eliminates the requirement to provide public notice before new oil activity takes place.

Critics say the rule, if finalized, could violate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires thorough environmental analysis before the government proceeds with any major project along with a process for the public to comment. 

“The message here to the Forest Service is let BLM move forward quickly with leasing. Let’s not talk environmental consequences; let's not talk NEPA analysis. Can they override all these statutory limits in regulation? Of course not, but they are trying to sweep them under the rug,” said Nada Culver, an attorney with the Audubon Society.

Environmental groups and former Bureau of Land Management employees have complained the agency has shifted its focus during the Trump administration, prioritizing oil and gas development over conservation and recreation.

Culver said having the Forest Service be able to ensure any oil and gas projects met their own environmental standards was key.

“The Forest Service manages its forests and grasslands and makes decisions about whether those lands are available for leasing in the first place and how they can be leased or developed. At the end they once again have the opportunity to object to leasing,” she said. “This sets up a system of checks and balances.”