Environmental laws review draws criticism, praise | PostIndependent.com

Environmental laws review draws criticism, praise

Dennis WebbPost Independent Staff

A retired federal land employee from Silt joined conservationists from around the region Thursday in expressing concern over the future of a landmark environmental law.Bob Elderkin, of Silt, and others who participated in a telephone press conference said the National Environmental Policy Act, which President Nixon signed in 1970, is in danger of being weakened.They also argued that a congressional committee is failing to involve the public adequately in evaluating a law to involve the public in federal land management.The National Environmental Policy Act protects and empowers the public, Elderkin said. It makes sure the local community is not left out of decisions, and it provides us the opportunity to base these decisions on good information.Elderkin worked for the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Service and Bureau of Land Management. He was involved in oil and gas regulation at the BLM, and since his retirement has been vocal in the debate over proposed drilling on the Roan Plateau near Rifle.Pursuant to NEPA requirements, the BLM is working on an environmental impact statement for the plateau. Its draft EIS generated more than 70,000 comments, almost all favoring protecting the plateau top from drilling.Environmentalists say such public involvement is crucial to public lands management, but also is threatened by a current congressional review of NEPA.Today NEPA and the publics voice is under siege, said Steve Capra, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.Environmentalists fear that efforts to speed up review processes under NEPA could result in eliminating opportunities for public comment.That way the public may or may not even know a project is opposed in their area until it starts, Elderkin said.Environmentalists also contend that a congressional task force reviewing NEPA often keeps details of its hearings secret, at least until hearing dates, and that the public is given little opportunity to testify. They claim the list of witnesses is stacked toward industry. The next task force hearing is Monday in Rio Rancho, N.M.U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., is chairman of the House Resources Committee and formed the task force. Resources Committee spokesman Brian Kennedy said the rules of House committee hearings preclude audience participation, but anyone is welcome both to attend and to submit comments.There has in fact been nothing secretive. There have been no efforts to exclude anyone, whatsoever, he said.As for who testifies, representatives of both industry and environmental groups have been invited.The witness lists are in our opinion very balanced, Kennedy said.The task force has equal representation by both Democrats and Republicans, he added.Kennedy said arguments that Congress plans to gut NEPA are unwarranted, and I would say driven by partisan politics.He said the goal simply is to see what aspects of NEPA, if any, need updating, and no conclusions have been reached.We have not even arrived at the point where the task force begins to compile its findings and report to the chairman of the Resources Committee as its charter requires, he said.Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, also said its premature to be judging the task forces work when it isnt finished.He said he thinks the review of NEPA is long overdue.We welcome it and I would think the environmental groups would welcome the opportunity to talk about the success stories of how NEPA works. Thats how the process works, he said.From the oil and gas industrys perspective, NEPA bears serious scrutiny.At some level NEPA is death by a thousand legal cuts, Schnacke said.He said it creates a tremendous delay for oil and gas development on public lands.Im not sure that was what was envisioned, to use the process to stop in our case energy development. … Its not necessarily a process that is in our view in that regard serving the public good.But environmentalists say NEPA can be credited with accomplishments such as ensuring that uranium tailings will be relocated away from the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, giving ethnic and low-income populations an opportunity to speak out about environmental threats in their neighborhoods, and causing oil and gas operators to work with the BLM and private landowners on issues such as wildlife habitat protection.Ultimately, its good for the operator, the landowner as well as the community, said Bernadette Barlow, whose family owns an 18,000-acre ranch that is undergoing intensive drilling in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.Our communities have a right to know, we have a right to participate, said Bianca Encinias, of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice in New Mexico.She said NEPA ensures that people who arent listened to can legally challenge public lands decisions.The process that NEPA set up is basic, and it just makes common sense, she said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com

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