Congressman Lowenthal, 70 Colleagues, Urge Interior Dept To Pause All Public Comment Period Deadlines During National Emergency
Congressman Alan Lowenthal, today, joined with 70 of his House colleagues in calling on the Department of the Interior (DOI) not to close public comment periods until at least 45 days after the national emergency due to the COVID-19 crisis is ended.
In a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Members state that given the dire circumstances of the coronavirus crisis, where social distancing and staying home to control the spread of the virus are the norm, “…, it is inappropriate that the Department of Interior continue its rulemaking process while the public’s attention is elsewhere. The Department’s refusal to extend comment periods will, in effect, curtail the public’s right to a meaningful opportunity to participate in the rulemaking process.”
The Members write that despite other agencies such as the Treasury Department, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development taking steps to extend public deadlines during the crisis, “…the Department of Interior appears to remain determined to use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to push its aggressive deregulatory agenda while the public’s attention is forced to be elsewhere.”
As an example, the Members cite the recent case where the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) opened a public comment period for ConocoPhillips’ proposed Willow Plan in Alaska’s Arctic after the President declared a national emergency for COVID-19. Despite the fact that this massive oil and gas proposal will have sizable impacts across the Arctic, BLM continues to move forward with the approval process during this time, with the agency stating that they will now be holding virtual meetings during a short 45-day comment period. Many rural communities in Alaska, including directly impacted Alaskan communities like Nuiqsut, lack strong internet connections, making virtual meetings a hollow exercise and impeding the ability of these communities to meaningfully participate and provide comments. Meaningful public participation requires in-person public meetings, especially in rural communities where BLM operates, like Alaska’s Arctic.
In the letter, the Members call on the DOI to institute one of the following steps regarding public meetings:
- Pause all open public comment periods on rulemaking and non-rulemaking, unrelated to the COVID-19 emergency response, and only reopen them once the Declared nation emergency has ended. Once reopened, extend the comment periods by at least 45 days. Comment periods from March 13, 2020 to the present should also resume at that time; or
- Keep open and extend all open public comment periods on rulemaking and non-rulemaking, unrelated to the COVID-19 emergency response, by at least 45 days beyond the end of the declared national emergency, including immediately reopening comment periods which closed from March 13, 2020 to the present.
The letter concludes with the Members writing, “The health and well-being of the American people must come first during this pandemic. The DOI must ensure it protects the public’s right to participate in the operations of their government while it continues to comply with statutory and judicial requirements during this national emergency. We urge you to immediately extend and protect public comment periods by taking the actions stated in this letter.”
To read the full text of the letter and see a list of signatories, click here.