CASPER — The Trump administration’s proposed overhaul of a landmark environmental act won widespread praise from Wyoming’s energy sector.
Currently, the National Environmental Policy Act requires the government to undertake sweeping environmental reviews of proposed infrastructure projects, investigating how development could impact land, air, wildlife and water.
But the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality received a directive from President Trump in 2017 to update the rules, which Trump considered a major barrier to completing critical projects, and the agency released a draft for public review Thursday.
“For years, NEPA regulations have been like quicksand to the regulated communities,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said in a statement. “The more they try to comply, the deeper into the regulatory muck they sink.”
Under the new rules, federal regulators will have a mandate to complete environmental reviews within two years, and environmental assessments will need to be completed in one year. Right now, environmental impact statements take an average of 4.5 years.
“It’s really difficult to plan an oil and gas drilling project in advance and wait that long,” said Steven Reid, president of Vertex Energy, an oil and gas company working in Laramie County. The new rules “will only expedite the process. And two years is still going to allow plenty of time to do a proper evaluation and proper environmental protections.”
Wyoming’s checkerboard of private and public land is unique among energy-intensive states. It produces more energy on federal land than almost any other state in the country, requiring many operators to complete reviews and obtain permits at multiple levels of government.
The lengthy regulatory requirements place the state at a disadvantage in the energy market, according to Paul Ulrich, vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Jonah Energy, a leading natural gas producer operating in the Green River Basin. Companies turn to other states when federal environmental reviews become too cumbersome, he said.
“When we start these projects in earnest, it’s because we have a strong belief that we can participate in the market in a timely manner based on that significant capital investment,” he said. “If a project takes five to 10 years, we have a responsibility to take that capital elsewhere.”
While companies like Jonah Energy have elected to jump the regulatory hurdles, others have fled for other areas, Ulrich said. In his mind, that has a cumulative financial loss for Wyoming.
Wyoming operators stressed the industry’s commitment to continuing to undertake environmental reviews.
“It’s not as if there are going to be shortcuts taken,” said Steve Degenfelder, of Kirkwood Oil and Gas, an independent exploration and production company in Wyoming. “But expediting things when the price of oil and gas justifies the expenditure could translate into a lot of activity and a lot of revenue for the state and the federal government.”
Ulrich concurred: “It is in our best interest as an operator to ensure that the lead agency, often times the Bureau of Land Management, conducts full, rigorous environmental assessments and analysis of our project.”
Shannon Anderson, an attorney with the landowners group Powder River Basin Resource Council, sees the proposed changes differently. In her eyes, they will likely lead to more legal uncertainty and less public information.
“Change NEPA and you will open up a whole new generation of case law and uncertainty,” she said. “Unfortunately, all it’s going to do is open up Pandora’s box of environmental litigation.”