SALT LAKE CITY — Three members of Utah's congressional delegation said the National Environmental Policy Act is in need of drastic reform because it has put a stranglehold on energy development in a way never envisioned when it was signed into law 43 years ago.
Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, both R-Utah, as well as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, took part in a panel discussion Thursday during the opening day of the Governor's Energy Development Summit.
The day's events also included a rally of about 200 people who gathered outside the Salt Palace Convention Center to protest Utah policymakers' pursuit of “dirty energy” such as oil shale, oil sands and conventional oil. They urged the adoption of clean energy policies, something they say has been given scant attention in Utah.
“There is such a thing as being too late,” said the Rev. Erin Gilmore, pastor of the Holladay United Church of Christ. “It is a choice of doing what is right and what is not right.”
Inside, at the panel discussion, the congressmen conceded that even though NEPA needs a massive overhaul — a goal some of them want to tackle — they know it will be incredibly difficult.
“Reforming NEPA is like reforming the Bible,” Stewart said. “You don't reform scripture.”
The congressmen said energy development is the cornerstone of the nation and key to lifting this country out of its economic slump.
Earlier, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who did not participate in the panel but delivered remarks, said, “energy development is one way of bringing us back from the brink.”
The problem, insisted Lee, is the bureaucracy that stands in the way of getting things done.
“There are a lot of things best regulated at the state level," he said. "There are things that we can do in Washington, but most of it involves getting out of the way.”
Bishop agreed, adding that it is not that important for the country to have a national energy plan.
“North Dakota (with its booming Bakken oil field) didn't need a national energy policy," he said. "It just needed to be able to develop its resources.”
But Stewart said he believes having such a policy would be a benefit because it would provide some level of certainty that is missing now.
“We have to ask ourselves: Are we still a serious nation? And if we are, why don't we move closer to a serious energy policy?” he said.
When it came time for the audience to ask questions, one woman said a reason to slow down energy development is to prevent it from ruining the outdoor recreation economy, which is dependent on public land unspoiled by drilling rigs.
Stewart said he could have picked a lot of places to live but chose Utah for a number of reasons, including its spectacular scenery.
“I don't want to put drilling rigs in Zion National Park, as an extreme example,” he said.
Lee said it is possible to have traditional energy development and thriving outdoor recreation.
“I don't know of any energy developers who want to drill in Arches National Park or have a species become extinct,” he said. “I don't think we have to give up one to have the other.”
All three were asked if they could wave a magic wand and get one piece of legislation passed that President Barack Obama would sign into law, what that measure would be.
For Lee, it was the REINS Act, introduced in 2010 and co-sponsored by Hatch. It would require that any new major rule proposed by federal agencies be approved by joint resolution by both the Senate and the House and signed by the president before it could take effect.
Bishop said he would repeal the Antiquities Act, which allows the president via executive order to create new national monuments absent congressional approval.
Stewart said he would pass meaningful reforms of NEPA or the Endangered Species Act.