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Interior to propose new rules on environmental reviews, endangered species

The U.S. Interior Department expects to propose new rules next year streamlining its environmental review process and regulations for listing endangered and threatened species, according to listings in the Unified Agenda posted by the White House on Dec. 14.

President Donald Trump has ordered agencies to eliminate regulations and other requirements that could hold back energy development. The Interior in an October report said it was eyeing reforms to the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, and the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires agencies to review and create a plan for mitigating much of the environmental harm proposed permits or other activities may cause.

Interior plans to propose a rule in October 2018 updating and streamlining NEPA, including by identifying new categories of actions that would be excluded from the environmental review process, said a related item in the Fall 2017 Unified Agenda.

The agency is allowed under the law to create so-called “categorical exclusions” for activities that would not individually or cumulatively significantly harm the “human environment.” For example, some projects built on existing rights of way are exempted from NEPA reviews. Developers have in the past complained that the NEPA process can drag on for years creating costly delays to infrastructure moving forward.

Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt in an August secretarial order directed staff to limit the length of environmental review documents to 300 pages and to complete environmental impact statements within one year of issuing a notice of intent to prepare the statement.

The Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, is also taking aim at the rules governing the protection and restoration of endangered and threatened species. It plans to issue a proposed rule revising ESA regulations in January 2018, including which areas are critical to restoring listed species, the related agenda item said.

The agency has had trouble over the years keeping up with the law's requirements for processing proposed listings and delistings within legal deadlines and is a frequent target of proposed legislation from Republican lawmakers aimed at limiting the law's impact on species in their districts.

FWS also plans to issue a proposed rulemaking in January revising its ESA interagency coordination regulations under Section 7 of the law. In its October regulatory burdens report, Interior said “the time and expense associated with satisfying the interagency consultation requirements are unnecessarily burdensome.”

“The FWS has discretion to create efficiencies and streamlining in the consultation process through targeted revision to regulations and/or guidance and is reviewing opportunities for further process improvements,” it said in the report.