Editorial: Why the NEPA rules needed streamlining

While Democrats in Congress were having palpitations and forecasting climate catastrophe as a result of the Trump administration’s streamlining of rules governing the review of federally funded infrastructure projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970, Nevada’s lone Republican representative in Congress took the time to review the rules and finds the changes long overdue.

President Trump announced earlier this month that environmental reviews of such things as roads, bridges, pipelines and power transmission lines were taking far too long and were too burdensome. The average review was taking four-and-a-half years and ran nearly 700 pages, one of the longest was for a 12-mile expansion of Interstate 70 in Denver. That took 13 years and exceeded 16,000 pages, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The new rules prepared by the Council on Environmental Quality limit major projects to two years and 300 pages or a year and 75 pages for smaller environmental assessments. More difficult cases could be extended with approval of federal officials.

Rep. Mark Amodei (AP pix)

Nevada Republican Congressman Mark Amodei, who represents Northern Nevada, concluded that the process had been weaponized by those with a political agenda rather than a legitimate concern for natural resources and the environment.

“If the answer for something needs to be no, then fine, say no and say why and let people get to the courts or not, whatever they want, but using the due process — and I use that phrase loosely — the administrative process of NEPA to de facto kill things through basically, ‘It’s going to take you a decade and we’re hoping that you shrivel up and die,’ was not intended by anybody,” Amodei said in a recent interview. “Those procedures have been weaponized to the point that there’s nothing really to do with the resources or the facts on the ground.”

Amodei noted as an example of this weaponization the prolonged debates and litigation over the habitat of the greater sage grouse in Nevada and other Western states — especially attempts to block mining permits.

“If it’s about your political agenda that’s one thing, but if it’s really about the resources, we went through a lot of that on the sage hen stuff. If it is really about fragmentation and loss of habitat, then let’s talk about that,” the congressman said. “Talk about how we fix that, but if it’s just really about you just hate mining companies. While we’ve permitted in the last 20 years 150,000 acres of mining in the Great Basin, woodland fire has consumed, I don’t know, somewhere around 8 (million) or 10 million acres. If you really care about sage hens you ought to be talking about fuels management. While you may have permitted 150,000 acres of mining, they’ve also rehabbed habitat for mule deer and stream zones for fish.”

Amodei concedes there is a need for reviews, saying he knows there was a time when rivers caught fire. That was the low point, he said, and was why President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.

He noted that when he came into office eight years ago mining permits were constantly being challenged, but the big mining companies had the resources and staff to fight and win.

“Listen, nobody’s afraid of the truth but it shouldn’t be something where it is really not about the truth but it is about how long we can draw out getting to that,” he said. “I interact with a lot of the federal land managers around the state on a regular basis in my oversight capacity and I can tell you this, it is my opinion and I’m not criticizing any of them. Frankly, those agencies give a lot of thought to the probability or possibility that they are going to get litigated. These folks who have abused the NEPA process count that as money in the bank: ‘We’re gonna sue you,’” noting this is why a deadline is necessary.

Amodei again pointed out that there is nothing in the rules saying the federal land agencies can’t say no to a project that would truly be demonstrably harmful. “So somebody puts an application in where it’s like, hey, this is in the middle of the last known habitat of the desert pup fish and you propose to fill in the spring and obliterate the whole of the species forever. If the answer to that is supposed to be no, say no,” he said.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

 

Newspaper column: NEPA rules changes will benefit economy and environment

President Donald Trump announced this past week that his Council on Environmental Quality is streamlining the rules for major infrastructure projects — such as roads, bridges, pipelines and power transmission lines — required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970, aiming to cut the approval time for such projects in half.

The council published the changes in the Federal Register on Friday, setting in motion a 60-day comment period. The changes are widely expected to be challenged in the courts by the usual self-styled environmental groups.

Businesses and labor unions hailed the proposal as long overdue, but environmental groups assailed it, saying the changes would contribute to climate change.

In an opinion piece penned for The Hill — Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions — argued that the changes would actually benefit the environment.

“Consistent with its environmental mission, modernizing NEPA will accelerate projects that improve the efficiency of our transportation and distribution systems, thereby reducing traffic congestion and associated emissions,” Donohue and McGarvey write. “It will also spur investment in renewable energy sources and transmission infrastructure, much of which is subject to delays by current NEPA procedures. And timelier implementation of conservation projects will help mitigate environmental impacts, such as damaging floods and wildfires.”

In recent years, major projects have taken an average of four-and-a-half years to be approved. The council aims to cut that to two years. A number of projects have taken far longer to be approved. An airport runway expansion in Taos, N.M., took 20 years. A highway and bridge project in Michigan to cut traffic congestion and, therefore, carbon emissions took 16 years. A Maryland public transit project stretched out for 14 years.

Trump announces changes to NEPA rules. (AP pix)

“We want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways bigger, better, faster,” Trump was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying at a White House press conference, where he was flanked by business and union leaders. “These endless delays waste money, keep projects from breaking ground and deny jobs to our nation’s incredible workers.”

The Journal noted that business groups claim lengthy NEPA reviews are partly to blame for a nearly $1 trillion backlog in transportation projects alone.

Democratic House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva of Arizona said in a press release, “Polluting industries need more public oversight, not less, and supporting this approach means ignoring real-world consequences in favor of Trump administration fairy tales. The courts have been crystal clear that NEPA requires considering climate impacts, so this is just another inevitably doomed effort by this administration to try to illegally rewrite the rules it doesn’t like.”

Nevada Democratic Rep. Susie Lee sent out a Twitter comment saying, “We’ve seen what happens if these major projects don’t have environmental impact reviews. Damaged ecosystems, increased pollution, and increased health risks. We can’t go backwards on this.”

Nevada Republican Congressman Mark Amodei said Friday, “Since we’re only about 24 hours out from the release of the proposed changes, we’ll have more for you next week, but so far the concepts look good.”

Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus tweeted, “While horrific fires create a crisis in Australia, President Trump still tries to deny climate change. It is inexcusable for the Trump Administration to put the President’s corporate allies ahead of our health and safety.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the administration of blocking any federal efforts to confront climate change. “These new guidelines undermine critical building requirements that ensure that our communities are able to withstand the growing threat posed by the climate crisis,” she was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

Even the liberal Los Angeles Times editorial board, in an editorial condemning the NEPA rule changes, conceded, “In truth, NEPA probably does need a tune-up. The current regulations date back to 1978 and have been amended only once since, in 1986. It’s reasonable to assume that all those years of experience have exposed flaws and shortcomings that could be addressed to improve and expedite the environmental review process. But the Trump administration, with its open denial of climate change and its industry-friendly policies aimed at expanding the production of fossil fuels, is not to be trusted with such a task.”

The streamlining of the bureaucracy will both contribute to economic growth and add infrastructure that will actually cut pollution in most cases. The naysayers are basing their projections of climate crisis on speculation and models that have yet to predict anything accurately.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: Congress continues its spending spree

Just days before Christmas, Congress played Santa Claus, doling out billions in pork to those who have been nice to them and sending the bill to our grandchildren. Talk about taxation without representation.

The two spending bills totaling $1.4 trillion and covering more than 2,300 pages were debated for just 90 minutes in the Senate but passed with huge bipartisan support in both chambers. While Republicans got funding for a border wall and the Pentagon, Democrats wrangled billions for domestic programs.

There was more money for Head Start and early childhood education — which has failed to show any longterm education improvements — more money for the Environmental Protection Agency, extension of the Export-Import Bank corporate welfare, a bailout for miners’ bankrupt pensions and health care funds, repeal of all the taxes meant to fund ObamaCare, more disaster relief for farm states, money for gun violence research, tax breaks for biodiesel, distilleries, race-horse and Nascar owners and renewable energy.

The bills did manage to forestall a “shutdown” of the federal government during the holidays, unlike last year’s 35-day federal worker paid vacation.

According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget — responsible federal budget, now there’s an oxymoron — the additional $500 billion in spending over the next decade combined with an earlier $1.7 trillion lifting of discretionary spending caps will add $2.2 trillion to the national debt in 10 years. This will increase the debt as a percentage of gross domestic product from 79 percent to 97 percent.

But don’t try to blame the deficit on President Trump’s tax cuts. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Congressional Budget Office “says tax receipts grew 4% last fiscal year, through September, and 3% in the first two months this year. Economic growth is feeding the Treasury. But spending is growing much faster: 8% last fiscal year, more than four times the inflation rate, and 6% in October and November this year.” With more of the same to come.

Nevada’s delegation joined in the spending spree, though Democratic Rep. Dina Titus of Las Vegas voted “nay” on the bill that included funding for the border wall. “I could not vote in good conscience to reward this Administration with over a billion dollars in border wall funding after they’ve stolen money from our troops to build an ineffective barrier,” Titus said in a press release. “We must stand up stronger to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda.”

On the other hand Nevada’s lone Republican in the delegation, Rep. Mark Amodei boasted of the fact one of the bills included border wall funding. “Look at what we can actually accomplish when we make it a priority,” Amodei’s press release stated. “In terms of the reforms, funding priorities, and responsible spending reductions included in these bills, Nevadans can certainly claim a number of victories. More specifically, these packages will increase funding for Department of Interior (DOI) operations including wildland fire management, Lake Tahoe restoration efforts, hazardous fuels reductions, watershed restoration, and the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program.”

Titus did make a point of the fact the spending bill she did vote for contained no funding for revitalization of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Democratic Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen also mentioned the lack of Yucca Mountain funding. “I’m glad to see both Democrats and Republicans come to the table with a bipartisan deal that does not fund Yucca Mountain, keeps the government open, and invests in Nevada’s health care, workforce, education, and infrastructure,” Rosen said in a press release. “This deal does a lot to help Nevada’s hardworking families by repealing three costly health care taxes and includes my provision to invest in telehealth programs, making health care more affordable and accessible.”

Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford made much of the fact one spending bill increases the pay for members of the military. “Our military service members are the greatest asset to our national defense and it is an honor today to vote to approve funding that includes crucial improvements for their everyday lives and the lives of their families and loved ones,” a Horsford press release said.

Remember who will be paying in the coming decades for all that spending now.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

The more things change the more they stay the same. This a Gary Varvel editorial cartoon from 2013:

This is a Gary Varvel editorial cartoon from a couple of weeks ago:

Newspaper column: Articles of impeachment are flimsy ploys

This past week Donald Trump became only the third president to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. Neither of the other two were convicted by the Senate — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999 — and neither will Trump, because Republicans hold a majority of Senate seats and there is no way to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority to remove Trump from office.

Not a single House Republican voted in favor of either article of impeachment, because they were flimsy to the point of being wisps in the Democratically driven wind. Even a couple of Democrats rejected them.

Both “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress” are so nebulous that they can be defined as disagreeing with someone or anyone.

“Through their depraved actions today, crazy Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats have branded themselves with an eternal mark of shame, and it really is, it’s a disgrace,” Trump correctly informed a rally in Battle Creek, Mich., shortly after the vote, according to the Washington Examiner. “They think the Washington swamp should be able to veto the results of an election. That’s what they think. There’s never been a time like this.”

What constituted “abuse of power” was Trump suggesting in a July telephone conversation with the newly elected president of the Ukraine that someone should investigate past dealings by 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. “So, if you can look into it …” Trump said, according to the transcript. This was not a request to “dig dirt” on a potential political opponent as so many in the press have described it, but rather a suggestion that an investigation might be warranted. Trump was accused of withholding military aid to coerce the investigation.

Since Trump has been investigated by countless government bureaucracies since he raised his hand to take the oath of office, might that be construed as abuse of power and an attempt to influence the next election?

As for “obstruction of Congress,” The Wall Street Journal notes that this amounts to nothing more than Trump going to court to protect the powers of his office from politically motivated snooping, something many presidents have done, including Clinton and Barack Obama. Democrats didn’t give the courts a chance to rule on what the law is.

Nevada’s Democratic representatives — Dina Titus, Steven Horsford and Susie Lee — all voted for both articles of impeachment. In a statement Titus said of Trump, “He tried to rig the 2020 elections by soliciting foreign interference, and then engaged in an unprecedented cover-up once he got caught. No president can be permitted to abuse the power of the office for personal, political gain, nor try to hide his misdeeds by demanding that his subordinates withhold key documents and refuse to testify before Congress.”

Republican Congressman Mark Amodei, who represents northern Nevada voted “nay” on both articles. Amodei noted in a statement explaining his votes, “What happened after the phone call is also essentially uncontested. Ukrainian aid was slowed for several weeks but provided by mid-September. There was a meeting between President Trump and President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy. There is no evidence that the Ukrainian Government has investigated the Bidens and therefore, no announcements regarding the same.”

As for obstructing Congress, Amodei listed a litany of refusals by the Obama administration to cooperate with requests from Congress — everything from Fast & Furious gun dealings with drug cartels to the Iran Nuclear Deal to Obamacare subsidies to Solyndra and Benghazi.

Regarding the attack in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, Amodei quoted the White House counsel’s explanation for refusing to answer questions from Congress, “If the President were to answer your questions, his response would suggest that Congress has the unilateral power to demand answers from the President about his official acts.” Which is what Congress just tried to do with Trump.

The congressman concluded that he didn’t believe Obama should have been impeached for obstructing Congress and neither should Trump.

This entire process has been an affront to American voters, who should remember how their current representatives abused the system for the sake of political power come the November election.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Judge blocks state sage grouse protection plans

A greater sage grouse male struts for a female. (Pix by Jeannie Stafford for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A federal judge in Idaho has pulled the rug out from under the Western states that had worked with the federal public land agencies to create separate plans to preserve sage grouse habitat and yet still allow fruitful economic activity such as mining, oil and gas exploration, farming and grazing.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill granted an injunction blocking those plans in a lawsuit brought by several self-styled environmental groups. The judge agreed that the Bureau of Land Management plans announced this past spring failed to make a one-size-fits all, range-wide analysis, failed to evaluate climate change and removed protections for the birds unjustified by science and conditions on the ground. Never mind that the colorful fowl best known for its strutting mating ritual has never been added to the Endangered Species list, though its population in recent years has declined from millions to about half a million.

The suit — brought by the Western Watersheds Project, the Wildearth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity and the Prairie Hills Audubon Society — opposed the regionalized plans for grouse protection in Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon and California.

The state-by-state plans announced in March backed off Obama administration plans that would have largely blocked most economic activity near grouse habitat.

“The State of Nevada thanks the Bureau of Land Management for incorporating our concerns and respecting the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat plan developed cooperatively by Nevada state agencies and local stakeholders,” Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak was quoted as saying at the time in a statement conveyed by the BLM. “In particular, Nevada appreciates the BLM’s commitment to compensatory mitigation as an integral part of the success of Nevada’s habitat management plan. We look forward to working closely with the BLM Nevada Office and the Department of Interior leadership to ensure the revised habitat plans are fully successful.”

A year earlier, as the Nevada Plan was being finalized then-Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval also praised the cooperation the state was getting from the Trump administration land agencies. “I look forward to reviewing the draft Environmental Impact Statement and I trust that the Department of the Interior will continue to engage with and value the opinions of the impacted western governors,” Sandoval was quoted as saying. “I am confident we can find success by working together.”

Nevada’s Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Republican Congressman Mark Amodei also thanked the Interior Department for respecting the work of Nevada stakeholders.

But the judge has prevented those regional plans from being used.

Courthouse News quoted an attorney representing the plaintiffs as saying of the ruling, “The Bureau of Land Management deliberately undermined protections for the sage grouse, then had the audacity to claim these rollbacks would not impact the species. The law demands more. This injunction is critical to protecting the sagebrush steppe and this icon of the American West.”

What most people forget is that this icon of the American West never was seen by early explorers of the American West in the 1820s and 1830s, nor by the first wagon trains in the 1840s. Not until settlers brought in horses, cattle, oxen and sheep, which fertilized the soil and ground the vegetation into the ground, while ranchers also improved water sources, did the sage grouse population grow into the millions. Human activity actually caused the birds to thrive. Fires and the lack of predator control have caused the grouse population to dwindle somewhat, not mining, exploration, grazing and farming.

Local common sense management of the lands — not one-size-fits-none central planning — will preserve the sage grouse and jobs.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

For our grandchildren: Taxation without representation

The Senate has now passed the so-called budget deal previously approved by the House and President Trump is expected to sign it.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the measure avoids a government shutdown in the fall by suspending the debt ceiling until after the 2020 election and provides more than $2.7 trillion in discretionary spending over the next two years, which means the deficit will grow by $1 trillion a year for the foreseeable future.

Who will pay for today’s spending tomorrow? Our grandchildren, who have no say in the matter. That’s what was called taxation without representation at the time of the Revolution.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said the deal marks the death of the Tea Party movement, according to Fox News.

“Both parties have deserted – have absolutely and utterly deserted – America and show no care and no understanding and no sympathy for the burden of debt they are leaving the taxpayers, the young, the next generation and the future of our country,” Paul said on the Senate floor. “The very underpinnings of our country are being eroded and threatened by this debt.”

Apparently, Republican Rep. Mark Amodei was the only Nevada delegate to vote against this atrocity.

In 2016 Trump promised to wipe out the national debt in eight years.

At least a drunken sailor will sober up eventually.

Newspaper column: House $15 minimum wage bill would kill jobs

The House this past week passed a bill that would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 and phase out the sub-minimum wage currently allowed for tip earners. The vote was 231-199, largely along party lines.

While all three of Nevada’s Democratic representatives put out statements bragging about voting for the Raise the Wage Act and citing how many people in their districts would be eligible for pay hikes under the law, Republican Mark Amodei, who represents Northern Nevada, warned of the many problems that the bill could create and said the only good thing about it is that it is unlikely to pass in the Senate.

“It makes a good campaign ad in certain neighborhoods, I guess,” Amodei said during a conference call on Friday. He said the bill, while it may raise hourly wages for some by 107 percent, others will lose their jobs entirely or have their hours cut. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that somewhere between 1.3 million and 3.7 million would lose their jobs.

Amodei said the bill is especially problematic for Nevada because a third of the workforce is tipped workers. “In a state that has 45 million-plus people a year who come here for the resort industry … they tip people in the housekeeping industry, they tip people in restaurants, they tip people in casinos,” the congressman noted, adding that the current federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour and the increase to $15 an hour would constitute a 600 percent increase.

“When you say everybody is going to make 15 bucks an hour you’re picking winners and losers,” Amodei said. “Because what do business people do in response to that? They take a look at, first of all they’re going to raise prices, which by the way is kind of that vicious circle — the good news is you’re making more money, the bad news is it costs you more on everything this impacts.”

A Cato Institute analysis in 2012 found that a 10 percent increase in the U.S. minimum wage raises food prices by up to 4 percent. Imagine what 107 percent would do.

Amodei also noted that the National Restaurant Association reports that almost two-thirds of restaurant owners, when faced with higher minimum wage requirements, reduce hours for workers, half eliminated jobs and all raised prices. “So the good news is you’re getting 15 bucks and hour, the bad news is you’re not going to work as many hours,” he said.