December 22, 2005

US Lawmakers Seek Changes in Green Impact Reviews

WASHINGTON -- The views of local citizens and companies -- as opposed to those of national groups and other individuals -- should weigh more heavily when lawmakers evaluate the environmental effects of major federal actions, a U.S. House Resources Committee task force said on Wednesday.

The task force issued nearly two dozen recommendations to revise the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a broad 1970 law that requires environmental impact reviews for timber harvests, mining permits and oil leases on federal land. The law also applies to virtually every action by a federal agency that may have an impact on the land, water or air.

Republican Richard Pombo of California, chairman of the House Resources Committee, is a longtime critic of NEPA, saying that such reviews can drag on for years.

"There are elements of NEPA that are causing enough uncertainty to warrant modest improvements and modifications to both the statute and its regulations," the task force said in its report to Pombo.

One proposed change would give greater weight to what local citizens and businesses have to say about the environmental impacts of a federal action, the task force said. "The issues and concerns raised by local interests should be weighted more than comments from outside groups and individuals who are not directly affected by that proposal," it said.

Another recommendation would narrow the ability of environmental groups to challenge federal projects in court and set a 180-day deadline for any lawsuits that are filed.

The task force also proposed that NEPA set an 18-month deadline for federal agencies to complete environmental impact statements.

The Sierra Club and other green groups say the House panel aims to introduce legislation that would gut NEPA's environmental protections and make it difficult to challenge projects on federal land or involving federal regulations.

Public comments and suggestions about the recommendations will be accepted by the panel until February 3. A final plan will be issued in early 2006, a committee spokesman said.

Pombo and 11 other House Republicans are on the task force along with 10 Democrats.