6/3/23: Updated with comment from 350 Colorado.

Many Colorado Republicans, including U.S. Reps. Ken Buck and Lauren Boebert, are less than happy about the passage of a bipartisan debt limit compromise by the U.S. Senate last night. But the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas member group that advocates for the industry in both statewide and nationally, and which has worked in tandem with Colorado Republicans on key legislation, says it “enthusiastically supports” the agreement, in part because it strips down certain regulations which have impeded their business for years.

The debt ceiling bill is the result of negotiations between President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Stakes on the floor of Congress were high: passing the bill would stop the U.S. from defaulting on its debt, which could have dire ramifications for the global economy. As part of this compromise, the GOP has managed to grab wins for its benefactors in the oil and gas industry.

Signed into law in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires all federal agencies to take time to evaluate the environmental impact of a potential decision before taking action. Afterwards, these agencies must publicly release an Environmental Impact Statement containing their assessment of potential environmental consequences. They are also required to allow opportunities for public comment on the review process.

Among other things, NEPA applies to agencies that consider Applications for Permits to Drill (APDs). It also applies to permits for some renewable energy projects. 

One of the clauses in the new debt limit bill would force a streamlining of NEPA’s process, putting deadlines of 1 to 2 years on all environmental impact reviews. It also gives agencies leeway to exempt certain types of projects from the review process entirely. Energy advocates see this as a victory that allows them to accelerate permitting for new developments.

“So NEPA has been weaponized by environmental groups for years, and they use it to stop projects or delay them for years and years. And this is not just oil and gas projects,” said Kathleen Sgamma, President of the Western Energy Alliance, to KCOL radio host Jimmy Lakey on Wednesday. “This is now affecting wind and solar. It affects bridges and road projects. And when NEPA takes too long, it holds up projects. It keeps energy from being developed. It increases costs for taxpayers. So the NEPA reforms in the debt ceiling compromise are very significant and we support them. And we have been pushing for these for years and years and years.”

Reached for further comment via email, Sgamma said that NEPA review for oil and gas projects often takes five to ten years, and mentioned a case where one member company’s APDs were held up for 17 years by NEPA review. A 2006 study of NEPA review periods showed that on a national level, NEPA reviews take around four and a half years on average — though this data has the potential to be skewed by very lengthy reviews.

The American Clean Power Association, which advocates for renewable energy but also natural gas, has also stated their approval for the deal, albeit calling it a “down payment” on their desired reforms.

According to the Western Energy Alliance, accelerating the process for oil and gas projects, takes the U.S. one step closer to “energy dominance,” and brings the potential to decrease gas pump prices by increasing supply.

“When we can produce more oil and natural gas here in America, then prices stay lower at the pump. And prices are certainly lower than they were last summer, but they’re still very much higher than they were at the start of the Biden administration,” Sgamma said on air. “So if we can produce more energy here, not only does that create jobs here in America, but it also keeps prices lower for consumer interest.”

While this is true in theory, many Colorado oil and gas producers have neglected opportunities to ramp up production, thus keeping prices and profits high.

Fossil fuel proponents outside Colorado have even more reason to celebrate: the debt ceiling agreement also effectively rubber stamps the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport natural gas through sections of Virginia and West Virginia – posing a threat to many rural Indigenous communities, experts say. 

Many environmentalist groups have taken extreme issue with the changes to NEPA and the acceleration of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The Sierra Club, a prominent U.S. environmental advocacy group, called on Congress to reject the bill. Additionally, over 200 organizations across the country, including 350 Colorado, Colorado Businesses for a Livable Climate, and Unite North Metro Denver, signed a letter urging Democratic leadership to remove these riders from the agreement before passing it.

“We urge Congress to pass a clean debt ceiling bill free of unnecessary poison pill riders that would harm disadvantaged communities, Tribal nations and Indigenous Peoples, working families, and the physical environment,” the letter says. 

For one thing, these groups staunchly oppose continuing investment in natural gas, which is an overwhelming driver of climate change. These environmental advocates also say that the changes for NEPA review requirements risk limiting the public’s ability to make their voices heard on issues that will impact their lives and communities, including oil and gas developments.

In an email, Sgamma disagreed with the assertion that the shortened review period makes public comment more difficult, and referred to environmental groups pushing against the NEPA changes as “obstructionist.”

“They use NEPA fights and litigation as a way to raise money from a slice of the population who believe their false claims. Their claim that it’s more difficult for public input is just false,” Sgamma wrote. “The law does not get rid of NEPA’s notice and public comment requirements. They’re upset because they pretend to represent the public but the majority of the public wants to get roads, bridges, pipelines, and other infrastructure built. Environmental groups just won’t be able to so easily use NEPA just to say no to everything.”

Public opinion on natural gas pipelines is often divided. A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center measuring public opinion on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines found that opinions varied sharply, with Democrats in particular opposing the highly publicized pipelines and Republicans tending to favor them.

These changes were not without opposition from Democrats in the House and Senate. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced an amendment that would remove approval for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which failed 30-69. Had it passed, the Senate would have been required to send the bill back to the House for reapproval, risking default. 

Ultimately, the Senate passed the debt ceiling agreement on an expedited schedule, with all proposed amendments failing.

To Sgamma, the final version of the bill had room for improvement, but was ultimately a victory.

“Well, certainly we wish there were there were more provisions in this debt ceiling compromise. But the reality is that there is divided government and no one side is going to get everything it wants out of this,” she said. “Yes, I wish there had been more in there about pipelines, I wish there had been more in there about federal leasing and such. But I am of the opinion that we don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

For environmentalists, however, the changes in this bill are only the most recent setback that must be overcome.

“Accelerating permitting for fossil fuel projects is the last thing Coloradans need when we’re already suffering from F-grade air quality and the worsening impacts of the climate crisis, like wildfires and extreme weather,” said Micah Parkin, Executive Director of 350 Colorado. “That’s why we’re co-hosting events across our state in Colorado on June 10th calling for a phase out of all new oil and gas permitting.”

The national 350 Network Council, of which 350 Colorado is a member, is sponsoring multiple demonstrations, in Colorado and nationally, against the use of fossil fuels in early June.

“Frontline communities & global scientists have been abundantly clear – we cannot avoid the very worst impacts of the climate crisis if we allow for any more fossil development,” the event description reads.