By Deborah Cranswick
(With this column we begin a periodic series of notes on issues affecting the Alaska oil and gas industry arising under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Recently retired from the federal government following a 33 year career, the author was directly involved in the application of NEPA to oil and gas exploration, development and production decisions within the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Alaska regions of the Bureau of Ocean Management and its predecessor agency.)
The National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA requires federal agencies to provide opportunities for public input in the environmental analysis and decisions processes. State and local governments, industry and businesses, environmental and advocacy groups, and federally recognized tribes are stakeholders that participate in the NEPA process. But more fundamentally, the public is you. How can you as an individual participate effectively?
Your input to the agency needs to be relevant, specific, and timely. Public participation is not a vote. However, you can tell the agency and decision makers whether you support or oppose an action and have effective input at the same time if you provide a “because”:
“I support approval of the proposed action with the requirements specified under Alternative 2 because the stream protected under Alternative 2 is essential to the health of the local fish population, which in turn is critical to the local tourism and economy.”
“I opposed the proposed extension of the area of operations because of potential multiuse conflicts with community activities.”
The type of input the agency is requesting depends on the stage of the NEPA process. The two major opportunities for public participation are scoping and the comment period on a draft NEPA document. During scoping, the agency provides a description of the proposed action and asks for information to help determine the issues, alternatives, and mitigation measures to be analyzed. Your input needs to be related to the specific proposed activities and detailed enough to define an issue, alternative, or mitigation measure for analysis. The agency needs input to answer questions like the following: Which environmental or human resources might be affected? What types of impacts might occur? How might the proposed activities be modified to lessen adverse effects? What other courses of action might accomplish the goals of the proposed action?
A general statement like:
“I am concerned about impacts to marine mammals,”
could be more effective by being more specific:
“I am concerned about the effects of drilling noise on bowhead whales.”
During scoping, the agency needs to define the geographic area and the timeframe for the analysis. To a large extent, these parameters are defined by the proposed action, as well as the issues and sensitive resources to be analyzed.
However, the effects of an action may be long ranging or long term, or may ultimately affect activities that are currently in the planning stages. Often, the public input provides the broad look to identify these concerns. The agency also asks the public to help identify information sources that would be relevant to the analysis, such as ongoing university research or traditional knowledge.
During the public comment period on a draft document, the agency asks for feedback on the content. Here again, including a “because” can increase the effectiveness of your comment.
“The analysis of the effects on the local economy is incomplete because it does not take into account potential effects of indirect employment in the nearby communities.”
Read the document and ask the agency specific questions:
Who conducted the research cited on page 3-98, third paragraph?
What research supports the statement on page 4-89 about the distribution of polar bears?
Where in the document do you provide the information referenced in the first paragraph on page 3-76?
When will the second stage of the action be reviewed by the agency?
Why does the analysis of noise effects on fish not take into account the results of Smith and Jones, 2009?
How would the agency monitor compliance with the required mitigation under Alternative 4?
To what extent will the measure under Alternative B reduce the risk of oil spills?
Finally, your input should be provided in a timely manner. The agency will publish a date for the end of the public input process. Although agencies certainly can and do consider late comments, to be most effective your input needs to be received in time to be included various summaries or presentations prepared soon after end of the input period.
Deborah Cranswick is a NEPA expert with 33 years of experience with the federal outer continental shelf oil and gas program. Deborah can be contacted at Deborah.Cranswick@gci.net.