Responding to Questions for the Record


Jun 14, 2023 | LPP Blog | Jamie Pleune

Illustration of businesswoman with black hair typing on laptop with different email envelopes in the background behind her.Ideally, congressional hearings provide a forum for lawmakers to gather information, learn more about specific issues, and make informed decisions. After the hearing concludes, committee members have an opportunity to submit additional questions to the witnesses and receive a written response. This written exchange, known as Questions for the Record (QFRs for short), provides an opportunity for lawmakers to seek clarification, request additional data, or cover topics that were raised during the hearing. Congressmen can also ask questions that were not covered during the hearing due to time constraints. For observers, QFRs can provide a glimpse into what interests specific lawmakers.

Following a hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Oversight and investigations, I received several QFRs—twenty-four to be exact. These questions provided some insight into issues that interested the Chairman of the Committee, Congressmen Westerman and the Ranking Democrat on the Committee, Congressman Grijalva.

For example, Congressman Westerman inquired about an observation in Evidence-Based Recommendations for Improving NEPA Implementation that wildfire suppression expenses and activities affect NEPA implementation timeframes. Here is an excerpt:

Would additional resources for wildfire management help reduce NEPA decision-making times [for] areas with higher wildfire suppression costs?

According to a 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service, “Fire expenditures continue to climb, affecting the implementation of other programs . . . through personnel and funds transferred to fire control.”[1] A series of roundtables conducted with stakeholders engaged with the Forest Service NEPA process also described how the high priority of wildfire suppression activities affect decision-making times. “Budget shortfalls and statutory mandates on funding for fire response, combined with a shortage of trained employees in areas other than fire and/or a frequent diversion of staff to emergency response or shifting priorities, hamper the ability of the Agency to make progress on other important forest and grassland resource management efforts.” They also noted that “staffing levels are not adequate to meet the current demand” and that “timelines are often lengthened due to the need for hiring or onboarding additional staff, including ‘holes’ in interdisciplinary team specialist representation”[2] Based on these reports, it appears likely that stabilizing budgets and bolstering agency capacity in non-fire suppression roles would improve decision-making times and efficiency in the NEPA process.

Congressman Grijalva asked several questions addressing a wide range of issues including energy independence and environmental justice. Here is one excerpt:

What is the connection between NEPA and energy independence?

One way to achieve energy independence is transitioning to a renewable energy economy, which means building massive infrastructure. It also will require cooperation between agencies with different jurisdictional duties, states, local communities, and tribes. Without a framework for coordinating analysis, considering stakeholder input, identifying potential hazards, and avoiding, reducing, or mitigating those impacts, this build out of infrastructure would be practically impossible. One barrier to the deployment of renewable energy projects is opposition from affected landowners due to real or perceived harms that the project would bring, and inconsistency between local, state, tribal, and federal laws.[3] A research team from MIT concluded “incorporating all stakeholder perspectives from the outset of a siting process will probably save time and money” by addressing concerns early and avoiding sustained political opposition. The NEPA process is a familiar tool that can be used to engage stakeholders early and streamline renewable energy deployment. The NEPA process also serves as a tool for decision-makers to defend justified decisions. It offers a public process for deliberation. It helps decision-makers identify issues of concern. It provides a forum to justify use of agency discretion. It provides a preview potential sources of conflict and a mechanism for avoiding, reducing, or mitigating impacts. And it helps agencies understand legal vulnerabilities of a decision before it’s made.

These questions demonstrate that even though the debt ceiling legislation included amendments to NEPA, the work of permit reform is not over. In March, the IPCC issued its Sixth Assessment report with an unmistakeable theme. Rapid, deep, and immediate GHG emission reductions must be achieved this decade in order to limit warming to between 1.5° and 2° Celsius. Achieving an 80 percent clean grid by 2030 will require roughly 950 gigawatts of wind and solar to be built, sited, and connected to the grid within the next decade. The scale of this challenge is daunting, but that does not mean we should forgo elements of permitting and enforcement of environmental standards. Instead, permit reform should focus on meaningful changes, such as developing a national strategy for interstate power transmission, addressing the interconnect queue, and helping site transmission lines in a manner that is ecologically conscious and environmentally just.

Here is a link to the letter containing the QFRs.

You can read the full set of responses here.

[1] Kate Hoover & Anne A. Riddle, Cong. Res. Serv., R43872, National Forest System Management: Overview, Appropriations, and Issues for Congress (2019)

[2] Nat’l Forest Found., EADM, Environmental Analysis and Decision-making, Regional Partner Roundtables: National Findings and Leverage Points 18 (2018) https://www.nationalforests.org/assets/pdfs/National-EADM-Report.pdf

[3] Lawrence Susskind et al., Sources of Opposition to Renewable Energy Projects in the United States, 165 Energy Policy 112922 (2022).

 

Jamie PleuneJamie Pleune is an Associate Professor of Law (Research) and a member of the Law and Policy Group in the Wallace Stegner Center.


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