Advocacy groups are working to protect public input on critical environmental and land management decisions in a socially distanced world focused on slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Citizen access to information and resources has been limited by closures and movement restrictions. Meanwhile, industry groups say workplace changes designed to keep both employees and the public healthy make it more difficult for them to comply with monitoring and reporting laws.
On March 26, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would suspend enforcement on a variety of environmental and public health monitoring and reporting regulations, provided the EPA finds the noncompliance was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new standard applies retroactively to violations dating back to March 13 and does not have an expiration date.
Wyoming has primacy in most areas of environmental regulation, meaning that the state, rather than the federal government, has the right to enforce more strict laws than the federal government if desired.
In a March 30 press conference, Gov. Mark Gordon said that within Wyoming, some field inspections would likely be delayed due to travel concerns.
“But we will continue to do the work that Wyoming needs to do and we will continue to provide the enforcement of what needs to be done,” Gordon said. “It just may be delayed.”
One day before the EPA announcement, the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Wyoming Outdoor Council called on Gordon to modify state agencies' public
comment periods, citing access concerns due to facility closures mandated by the
governor's recent executive orders.
In a joint letter, the groups noted that not all permit documents and rule-making proposals are available online and requested a new order suspending deadlines for public comment periods.
“Many in our state have limited access or no access to high-speed internet, and with libraries shut down as well, access to paper documents at state agency offices is needed to fulfill comment period requirements,” the groups wrote. “We have concern for state agency employees if members of the public are visiting document reading rooms to access the documents.”
According to Powder River Basin Resource Council staff attorney Shannon Anderson, the groups are particularly concerned about April deadlines for comment on air and land quality permits for the Brook Coal Mine near Sheridan and on the Public Service Commission's investigation into Rocky Mountain Power's Integrated Resource Plan.
Locally, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is also accepting comments on recommendations to approve both a new oil and gas production facility and new compressor stations in southern Johnson County, both of which could lead to an increase in emissions or noise in the area.
"Throughout this whole crisis, I've been getting notices about air quality permits and mining permits and a variety of other permits that are out for public comment right now,” Anderson said. “Air quality alone goes through typically dozens of permits a month. Any comment period that's not an emergency, there's no reason why it shouldn't be extended for 30 or 60 days." At a press conference March 25, Gordon said that he was taking the comments into consideration, but no decision had been made.
The EPA decision, which relaxes enforcement on environmental regulations in areas such as air emission controls, wastewater and waste treatment, came several days after Michael Sommers, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking for regulatory relief.
The EPA order cites the possibility of compliance challenges due to worker shortages and delayed sample processing for activities that include infrastructure integrity testing, effluent sampling and greenhouse gas emissions reporting. It asks companies to make every attempt to comply with regulations but says they will not be penalized if they cannot.
“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes (that) challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”
The Petroleum Association of Wyoming said in a statement that its members would continue to comply with regulations to the best of their ability and also that “(they) appreciate knowing that noncompliance resulting from government mandates related to the pandemic will not be unjustly prosecuted.”
“The irony is that the agency Americans rely on to protect our health is responding to a health crisis by relaxing enforcement,” said Bob LeResche, board member of Powder River Basin Resource Council, who ranches near Clearmont. “Their urging of polluters to just 'make every effort to comply' sends a very wrong message to the companies whose operations could put Americans at grave risk.”
The Wyoming groups' call to suspend comment periods echoed similar national-level protests.
“State and local governments, small and large businesses, public land and resource users, educational institutions, fish and wildlife managers, and many more face serious disruption in their daily lives,” wrote representatives from WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project in a March 18 letter to Bureau of Land Management acting Director William Perry Pendley. “There is no doubt that the ability for all interest groups to weigh in on BLM management actions is currently severely constrained.”
The groups frequently protest aspects of federal oil and gas lease sales. This time, however, the Taxpayers for Common Sense and Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship also called on the BLM to halt quarterly sales as oil prices continue to sag at historic lows.
“Leasing vast swaths of public land in the midst of an oil glut and collapsing market is nothing short of fiscal lunacy,” said CRS president David Jenkins in a statement. “It also represents a gross mismanagement of valuable natural resources that turns our nation's long-standing principle of multiple-use on its head. If the administration fails to recognize these realities and change course, every American should be outraged.”
Both protests came ahead of a slew of first-quarter lease sales across the Western states. The BLM Wyoming sale went off March 17 as scheduled.
“As required by law, the Bureau of Land Management will proceed with quarterly oil and gas lease sales for parcels in multiple states,” said BLM spokesman Tyson Finnicum in an email. “Because we have moved to an online auction with a third party contractor, there are no public health risks associated with carrying out this important mandate.”
In total, the sale brought in $3.2 million, roughly half of which goes to the state of Wyoming. The lowest-revenue sale in 2019 netted $8.3 million.
Statewide, about 20% of the parcels up for lease did not receive bids, while roughly 18% sold for the minimum bid of $2 an acre. The share of parcels with minimum or no bids was on par with the final two quarters of last year but represents a significant increase from sales in the first half of 2019.
The lone 1,200-acre Johnson County parcel nominated for lease received no bids.