Interior Department seeks to expedite energy projects to speed COVID recovery: document

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Interior Department sent a list of 50 major infrastructure projects, including 21 involving oil and gas drilling and mining, to the White House to be fast-tracked to “support economic recovery” from the ongoing COVID-19 emergency, according to a document obtained through a lawsuit by an environmental group.

The U.S. Interior Department building is shown reflected in a pond in Washington, September 10, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed

A July 15 letter obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity, from Deputy Interior Secretary Katharine MacGregor to White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, listed projects undergoing environmental review.

The list includes around 5,000 oil wells in Wyoming, liquefied natural gas projects in Alaska and Oregon and an offshore wind project in Massachusetts, as well as several mining, grazing and transmission projects.

The request came in response to an executive order signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on June 4 that gave federal agencies emergency powers to fast-track major energy and other infrastructure projects by overriding environmental permitting requirements.

Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson confirmed the request: “The Trump Administration has taken significant steps to improve the federal government’s decision-making process, while also ensuring that the environmental consequences of proposed projects are thoughtfully analyzed.”

Trump, a vocal advocate of fossil fuels as president, has sought to roll back environmental regulations across all federal agencies and reduce state powers to block projects for environmental reasons.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a bedrock environmental regulation that creates time consuming environmental reviews and public feedback requirements for major infrastructure projects.

In the letter, MacGregor also said the Interior Department is working on expanding the list of “categorical exclusions” for projects to exempt them from full NEPA reviews.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a lawsuit to obtain the documents after the group’s public records request was denied.

“Rushing to approve more climate-killing fossil fuel projects while ignoring environmental harms is wrong, and using COVID-19 as an excuse is despicable,” said Hartl.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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