Interior Dismantles Successful Conservation Investment Program

Photo credit: Dave Showalter

We learned today that the Interior Department quietly published a new Secretarial Order (3360) on December 22nd rescinding the Department’s climate and mitigation policies, including the Departmental Manual on Climate Change Policy, Departmental Manual on Landscape-Scale Mitigation Policy, BLM Mitigation Manual and BLM Mitigation Handbook. SO 3360 also directs the BLM to review the Draft Regional Mitigation Strategy (RMS) for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) and begin revisions to ensure it is consistent with the administration’s energy dominance goals.

These successful conservation investment, or “mitigation,” policies are critical for protecting natural resources, increasing permitting efficiency and driving economic development. Weakening or eliminating them will cause unnecessary damage to our public lands and leave infrastructure developers in limbo — without a framework for getting project permits and approvals, they will face costly uncertainty and delays.

Secretary Zinke’s new SO is part of an ongoing war on our public lands led by the Trump administration and Interior Department to review and steamroll policies they think will “burden” their quest for “energy dominance.” The SO itself acknowledges that “Implemented properly and appropriately, compensatory mitigation can be an appropriate tool used to reduce or off-set impacts from specific actions,” and “…can be effectively used to facilitate development of our nation’s resources by reducing impacts.” Yet the SO rips up carefully crafted policies based on years of lessons learned and best practices.

Without these policies, agencies and developers will still be required to address impacts and mitigation, but without the benefit of an efficient and consistent approach, leading to worse outcomes across the board.

Interior should let common sense trump politics and re-establish the policies; if policy improvements are needed, it should work collaboratively with developers and stakeholders to strengthen them. For the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the RMS, a condition of the Greater Mooses Tooth One (GMT-1) project, is a necessary step in truly balancing oil development and conservation values, while ensuring continued subsistence practices within the NPR-A. Any review and potential changes should be focused on strengthening, not weakening the RMS.

The SO does commit to revise and reissue its 2008 policy on off-site (or compensatory mitigation). In addition to reinstating the rescinded policies, Interior and BLM should commit to a transparent and collaborative approach to its review of the 2008 policy, and work with developers and stakeholders to strengthen it.

A commonsense approach: clean up after yourself

Interior is tasked with managing development on public lands such as transmission lines, oil and gas drilling, and wind and solar projects. In recent years, the department has established a commonsense approach to facilitating needed infrastructure while ensuring protection of our lands and clean air and water, embodied by the departmental Mitigation Manual and BLM Mitigation Manual and Handbook, to guide decisions at the agency level.

This approach includes incentivizing development in lower-conflict areas outside of important wildlife habitat and wildlands — and where development does occur, offsetting impacts through conservation investments, often referred to as “mitigation.” For example, if oil and gas drilling damages an elk migration corridor, other big game habitat important for hunters in the region could be improved or protected.

It is mitigation policies such as these that are responsible for slowing the loss of wetlands that protect coastal communities, for keeping rivers and streams clean for drinking and recreational use, for protecting the remaining stronghold habitats of our nation’s treasured wildlife — all while supporting the continued growth of our economy.

Mitigation policies are not just important for our natural heritage — they are also crucial for facilitating investment in infrastructure by helping developers get project permits and meet legal requirements for protecting environmental and public health.

Though Interior’s Mitigation Manual and BLM’s Mitigation Manual and Handbook are relatively new, mitigation has been a part of managing energy development for decades, advanced by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. These new policies simply capture lessons learned and best practices for meeting environmental standards required by law.

Demonstrated success: streamlining permitting & driving economic development

In addition to ensuring strategic investment of conservation offsets, these policies also increase permitting efficiency and predictability for developers.

Historically, work to mitigate the impacts of energy development has been implemented on a project-by-project basis. But recently, using the smarter, more-consistent and -efficient approach, BLM permitted solar projects at the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone outside Las Vegas in less than half the previous average time. The solar power from the projects is being sold at one of the cheapest rates in the nation, and mitigation funds have been allocated to important restoration and conservation priorities in the Mojave Desert.

In Wyoming, the Jonah Energy Year-Round Development Project incorporated a variety of mitigation measures to support waiver of lease stipulations that would have otherwise limited the times during which drilling could occur. The additional mitigation measures addressed impacts to greater sage-grouse and big game.

Beyond the economic benefits of more efficient infrastructure permitting, conservation investments themselves offer significant economic development opportunities. As noted in a recent study, investments in habitat restoration also contribute immensely to local economies, even in areas without high concentrations of public land. Estimates place the annual economic contribution of restoration at roughly $9.5 billion, including the direct employment of more than 125,000 workers. Interior’s efforts to roll back these policies will also damage conservation investment’s important and growing role as an economic driver.

DOI is creating a “solution” in search of a problem

Continued strong investment in DOI mitigation programs is crucial for ensuring efficient infrastructure permitting and protecting of our clean air and water and wildlife habitat.

The administration and Interior Department should take careful stock of the benefits these successful mitigation policies are providing — streamlining permitting, driving economic development and improving conservation outcomes. They should re-instate these common-sense mitigation policies and focus any potential changes on ways to strengthen, not weaken them.

Rolling back these policies and guidance does not remove the legal obligations agencies have for balancing conservation and development on our public lands. It only serves to decrease permitting predictability and efficiency and increase legal challenges and damage to our public lands.