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Will panel try to sap environmental law?

WASHINGTON — A House task force considering changes to a landmark environmental law will not make recommendation until next month, but environmentalists are already fretting that the panel will seek to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act.

Republican leaders say they hope to find ways to streamline the 35-year-old law, which serves as the basis for federal management of public lands.

The panel held its final hearing Thursday and will make recommendations by the end of the year, with the goal of introducing legislation next year, said Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., the panel's chairwoman.

Witnesses at seven public hearings — including field hearings in five states — have complained about delays associated with NEPA, McMorris said. Many highlighted the cost that time-consuming lawsuits can add to a project, whether it is a road, housing development or new business.

"From the very beginning I've tried to communicate that we recognize that NEPA is landmark legislation," McMorris said of the task force, which House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., created last spring.

The law "was visionary for its time," McMorris said, but added: "There have been some unintended consequences through the years, one being the lawsuits, another being the (extended) timelines" to get things done.

Rather than gut the law, as some critics claim, "we're just trying to get some certainty in the process," McMorris said, adding that different agencies implement NEPA in different ways. Delays of six to 10 years are not uncommon, she said.

"The purpose of the task force was to get more of an understanding — today — about how NEPA is being implemented on the ground and the impact it has," she said.

But environmentalists accuse the task force of stacking the deck of hearing witnesses in favor of industry representatives who oppose the law, and failing to give NEPA supporters enough notice to testify at field hearings in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Virginia and Washington state.

Critics said their fears were confirmed Thursday, when McMorris spoke to a breakfast meeting hosted by energy executives representing oil, natural gas, nuclear and electric power companies.

The briefing was sponsored by the American Gas Association, which represents nearly 200 utility companies that deliver natural gas to more than 56 million homes and businesses. Association President David Parker spoke at the breakfast, which also featured leaders of the American Petroleum Institute, the Edison Electric Institute and the Nuclear Energy Institute.

"I think it proves that the fix is in," said Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group. "It demonstrates that chairman McMorris intends to cater to the very energy industries that have been trying to shove public health and the environment aside for the last five years."

Tracey Lynn Shifflett, a spokeswoman for the natural gas association, called the breakfast unexceptional.

"This is an area of concern within the Congress, and it's important to keep our members informed about the emerging issues," she said.

About 70 people attended the briefing at the association headquarters near the Capitol, Shifflett said, including utility executives, the forest and paper industry, a variety of trade associations and government staffers.

Shifflett called the task force a bipartisan effort aimed at improving NEPA for all who are affected by it.

"Strong environmental policies and energy production are not mutually exclusive," she said. "They can go hand in hand."

But Democrats who serve on the task force criticized Republican characterizations of the law.

"Where critics see delay, I see deliberation," said Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the panel's ranking Democrat. "Where they see postponed profits, I see public input. Where they see frivolous litigation, I see citizens requiring their government to live up to its responsibilities. And where they see a barrier to development, I see a shield that protects all Americans from the shortsightedness of a massive federal bureaucracy."

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said he expects the task force to recommend legislation to weaken NEPA. "Any such legislation must be seen for what it is: an attempt to limit public input into federal decisionmaking . . . rather than the solution to some poorly defined problem with NEPA this task force was unable to uncover."