USDA Choice: Agency Does a 180 on Gas Lease Loan Reviews

by jim on March 21, 2012

No sooner had we posted the summary of a Monday New York TImes article on a new policy by the Department of Agriculture to require extensive environmental reviews of those property owners holding gas leases seeking federal loans than the Administration turned tail and ran away from that decision as fast as it could. News came today  that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack decided to reverse his own staff, saying that he’ll specifically authorize an “Administrative Notice” that rural loans are categorically excluded from the National Environmental Policy Act. In the Times article, USDA lawyers argued that not subjecting the loans to the review could be illegal and subject the Agency to lawsuits, so it’s not clear if such a move will prevent that fate. Meanwhile, “Gasland”  filmmaker Josh Fox sent out an SOS to try and save the review policy: “In a move that has angered hydrofracking opponents, the USDA did an about face and reneged on earlier statements hat its popular rural housing loans on properties with gas drilling leases would have to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and today authorized an Administrative Notice stating that rural housing loans would be excluded from NEPA.  On Monday, The New York Times had reported the USDA was planning on issuing an Administrative Notice to the opposite effect, telling staff that loans on properties with gas leases must undergo a full environmental review as required by NEPA before mortgage loans are made or guaranteed by the agency. Excluding NEPA review of fracking’s environmental impacts is a significant move.  It means that environmental review of rural housing loans would be limited to the EPA’s far less comprehensive national study of fracking, which is focused exclusively on drinking water and does not admit public comment.   Doing a NEPA analysis would have ensured that federal agencies issuing loans are complying with the law.  In fact, officials expressed concern the agency would be vulnerable to lawsuits if they didn’t conduct the NEPA reviews thoroughly enough.  But exempting rural housing loans from NEPA means that gas drilling leases will also be exempt from legal recourse and other basic public interest protections the law was meant to provide.  It also means that when property values drop precipitously due to contamination from gas drilling, sometimes to as low as 10% of their original value as we’ve seen in Pennsylvania, the American Taxpayer is going to be left holding the bag. Not only is this is unlawful, it’s just not right. Call President Obama and tell him: “Please do not allow the USDA to exempt housing loans from a full NEPA review. White House Phone numbers:  202-456-1111 and 202-456-1414.”

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