FOIA Fight Unearths Evidence of Energy Projects Put on Fast Track

Officials from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission visit St., George, Utah, to examine the route of the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline in 2016. The project is one of dozens that the Trump administration has targeted for fast-tracked environmental review during the Covid-19 emergency. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Federal agencies are working to exempt dozens of major energy projects from key environmental laws under a June executive order, according to records disclosed through a court battle.

The Center for Biological Diversity condemned the move Wednesday, pointing to a letter unearthed through the federal lawsuit it filed a month after President Donald Trump invoked special powers through the state of emergency already declared over the Covid-19 pandemic to expedite government approval of development projects. Instructing various agencies to cut back on environmental reviews required under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws, Trump said he was working to boost the economy crippled by lockdown provisions limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Accusing the government of withholding records on the move, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act. On Wednesday, it shared the first document its suit has unearthed: a July 15 letter from Assistant Interior Secretary Katherine MacGregor to White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow that details more than 60 projects targeted for expedited environmental reviews.

“I am pleased to report that the Department has developed multiple mechanisms for reducing the time required for environmental reviews on all projects where we are either the lead or a cooperating agency, including activities that will promote economic recovery during the Covid-19 pandemic,” MacGregor wrote.

The dozens of projects MacGregor highlighted for expedited review involve oil and natural gas development, mining, energy storage, and renewable energy, as well as livestock grazing, transportation and storm management. MacGregor did not specify how the agency would cut down review time.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, complained Wednesday that the Trump administration is putting communities across the country at risk by expediting projects whos specific risks take time to ascertain.

“The whole point of doing an environmental review is not to do paperwork for paperwork’s sake; it’s to actually identify the harms and do your best to avoid them,” Hartl said in a phone interview Wednesday.

When it comes to projects that involve endangered species, Hatl added, “if you goof up, it can result in extinction.”

Twenty-one of the projects listed involve fossil fuel extraction and mining activities, such as a 5,000-well oil and gas project in Converse County, Wyoming; the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon; and the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline in Virginia. 

Other projects that made the list focused on mining in Nevada, Idaho, Colorado and Alaska; stormwater management in New Jersey, Florida and Louisiana; highway improvement in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida; and wind farms in New Mexico and Massachusetts. Some projects on the list, such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, have already been approved.

“The department continues to look for and implement efficiencies that will help strengthen the economy and return Americans to work, while providing appropriate protections for public health and safety, natural resources, and the environment,” MacGregor wrote, noting that the enclosed table would be updated and shared with the White House “monthly throughout the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated economic recovery.”

The Mountain Valley Pipeline route on Brush Mountain in Virginia in 2018. (Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP, File)

The Center for Biological Diversity received MacGregor’s letter on Monday. “They have been incredibly obstructionist about releasing documents,” Hartl said, referring to the Trump administration.

“Rushing to approve more climate-killing fossil fuel projects while ignoring environmental harms is wrong, and using Covid-19 as an excuse is despicable,” Hartl said in a statement. “This massive giveaway to special interests shows the Trump administration only cares about currying favor with polluters. Poisoning our air and killing endangered wildlife won’t help fight the coronavirus.”

A spokesman for Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has pushed back against the criticism, saying the administration is taking steps to ensure environmental consequences are “thoughtfully analyzed” as government projects are approved.

“For far too long, critically important infrastructure, energy and other economic development projects have been needlessly paralyzed by federal red tape,” Conner Swanson, deputy press secretary, said in a statement.

But Hartl disputes this rationale, questioning how pipeline jobs will help workers in industries or geographic areas where the biggest job losses have occurred. 

“It’s sort of hard to believe that millions of people in the hospitality and airline travel industry are all of a sudden going to move to Wyoming to drill for oil and gas,” Hartl said.

Hartl is vowing to bring new litigation over every project on the list.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to hold the administration accountable to the law,” Hartl said.

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