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Secretary of the Interior releases new guidance on streamlining the NEPA process.

Citing a need to reduce "paperwork," the Interior Department has imposed controversial new restrictions on the length of crucial environmental studies.

In a newly revealed Aug. 31 memo, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt directed that the department's environmental impact statements "shall not be more than 150 pages or 300 pages for unusually complex projects."

The memo states it "dovetails" with a presidential executive order focused on infrastructure projects, while adding that it is being issued in the "context of the department's overall effort to streamline the NEPA process."

Officials will need high-level approval to exceed the new page limit. The memo also imposes a "target" of completing the studies required under the National Environmental Policy Act within one year.

"The purpose of NEPA's requirement is not the generation of paperwork, but the adoption of sound decisions based on an informed understanding of environmental consequences," Bernhardt wrote, adding that studies "should focus on issues that truly matter rather than amassing unnecessary detail."

The new limits, if strictly enforced, could significantly curtail documents that currently go on at great length.

The main volume of the final environmental study of California's proposed WaterFix twin-tunnel plan for routing the state's water, for instance, exceeded 16,000 pages when released last December. These kind of super-long studies are relatively rare, generally involving the most complicated and highest-profile projects.

More broadly, the memo gives Bernhardt the potentially far-reaching responsibility for overseeing the department's efforts to clear away "potential impediments" and "streamline" the environmental review process.

Environmentalists blasted Interior's new policy and the way in which it was imposed, with the Center for Biological Diversity calling the memo a "sneak" revision of long-standing policy.

"The Trump administration quietly and arbitrarily limited critical reviews that protect the environment and public health," Michael Saul, a senior attorney at CBD, said in a statement. "This dangerous move will do real harm to people and wildlife."

The environmental group obtained a copy of Bernhardt's four-page memo, which Interior had not previously made public.

"This order undercuts NEPA's fundamental purposes of ensuring public oversight and informed decision-making, mandating arbitrary timeframes and page limits and setting up another compressed, closed door review," Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy for the Wilderness Society, said in a statement today.

The memo comes on the heels of an executive order issued Aug. 15 by President Trump, which the White House said was designed to establish "discipline and accountability in the environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects."

The executive order requires federal agencies to "apply NEPA in a manner that reduces unnecessary burdens and delays as much as possible," among other duties (E&E News PM, Aug. 16).

NEPA requires federal agencies to evaluate the potential environmental effects of proposed projects such as roads or dams. Agencies prepare a full-bore EIS when a project will have a potentially significant impact; smaller environmental assessments may suffice on other projects, and many projects are deemed too minor to matter.

The Interior Department said today that about 80 draft and final environmental impact statements are issued annually.

Less than 1 percent of all analyses performed under NEPA get the complete EIS treatment, the Government Accountability Office noted in a 2014 report.

"Projects requiring an EIS are a small portion of all projects but are likely to be high-profile, complex, and expensive," GAO noted.

It's not uncommon for the EIS process to stretch out for years.

Though complete governmentwide data is unavailable, GAO reported that Interior's Bureau of Land Management conducted 56 EISs in 2012, more than the Army Corps of Engineers but about half the number conducted by the Forest Service.

By another count, published in 2014 by Stanford Law School students under the direction of former Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, federal agencies "initiate approximately 50,000 EAs and 350 EISs per year."

Hayes said in an e-mail today that "artificial page and time limits have little to do with effective compliance with NEPA," adding that "the quality of the pre-EIS coordination among federal and state agencies, and the quality of outreach to stakeholders and the general public" are much more important.

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