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James Anderson

Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — The Trump administration on Tuesday hosted the first of two hearings on its proposal to speed energy and other projects by rolling back a landmark environmental law. Opponents from Western states argued the long-term benefits of keeping the environmental reviews.

Among other changes, President Donald Trump wants to limit public reviews of projects — a process that's enshrined in the National Environmental Policy Act signed in 1970 by President Richard Nixon. The administration also wants to allow project sponsors to participate at an early stage of drafting federal environmental impact statements.

Dozens of environmental and tribal activists testified at the Denver hearing of the president's Council on Environmental Quality.

The act "is not just a tool to reduce impacts to the environment," said Gwen Lachelt. a commissioner in Colorado's La Plata County. "It's a basic tool of democracy."

Representatives of oil and gas groups countered that multiyear environmental reviews of pipelines, coal mines and renewable energy projects kill jobs. increase costs and often outlast a project's economic feasibility.

That proposed changes chagrined Jeannie Crumly, a rancher from Nebraska who has fought construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline for more than a decade. President Barack Obama canceled the project, only to have it resurrected by Trump.

"We've learned over the 10 years in our dealings with the pipeline supporters about falsehoods," said Crumly, sporting a "No Oil on Our Soil" button. "The possibility that they could create their own environmental impact statement is just ludicrous to us."

Trump has proposed narrowing the scope of the environmental law that along with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act spell out the nation's principal environmental protections. The environmental law requires federal agencies to determine if a project would harm the environment or wildlife. It gives the public the right to consider and comment on the projects.

Trump's plan is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute and other business and trade groups.

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Among other changes, the proposal would streamline environmental assessments and require "analysis of cumulative effects," which environmentalists say include a project's potential impact on climate change.

The law "has done more than any other law in the last 50 years to protect America's lands and wildlife and ensure public comment," said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities. "It's completely on brand that the Trump administration is cutting the American public out of the process."

Activists held a rally and other events outside the hearing at the regional headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Backers of the proposed changes call the law outdated and a deterrent to infrastructure investment. They also insist the changes won't eliminate environmental reviews. Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, has released a letter signed by 17 other senators urging adoption of the new rules. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, issued a statement acknowledging the need to reduce red tape but said it must be done without weakening environmental protections. Several members of Polis' cabinet testified Tuesday, including the director of the Colorado Energy Office.

Ben Rhodd, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, labeled the proposed changes a "direct effrontery to the sovereignty of Native Americans" because, he said, tribal governments weren't consulted beforehand.

The administration's proposal does call for increased involvement of tribal governments. 

“For tribal communities like Fort Berthold, which bear the brunt of health problems such as heart disease and asthma from the poorly planned federal projects, the National Environmental Policy Act isn’t just an environmental protection law, it’s a critical tool for ensuring our voice. We cannot afford to lose it.” said Lisa DeVille, a leader with Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights, from Mandaree, North Dakota, in a news release. “Any law that provides broad opportunities for public participation in government decisions that affect the environment and local communities shouldn’t be rolled back; rather, laws like the National Environmental Policy Act should be embraced and strengthened. The National Environmental Policy Act is one of the only avenues for tribal members to have any input on federal actions.”

Another hearing will be held Feb. 25 in Washington. 


Indian Country Today contributed to this story.