WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture sparked the ire of hydrofracking opponents Tuesday, when it reversed its plans to require rural housing loans on properties with gas drilling leases to comply with the extensive environmental review required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Josh Fox, director of the hydrofracking documentary “Gasland,” was quick to take issue with the USDA's change of heart.
“This is a very important development and one that we need to speak up about,” said Fox in a statement Tuesday night. “A full NEPA review, like the type the agency was talking about affirming, would have been more transparent, more rigorous and comprehensive. USDA staff experts in the New York office as well as in Washington made clear in emails that the law and the science require that mortgages with drilling leases shouldn’t be exempt from NEPA. This 180-degree turn by Secretary Vilsack contradicts both science and law.”
The about-face comes after The New York Times's Ian Urbina first reported the USDA was planning to require an extensive environmental review before issuing mortgages to people who have leased their land for oil and gas drilling.
"The proposal by the Agriculture Department, which has signaled its intention in emails to Congress and landowners, reflects a growing concern that lending to owners of properties with drilling leases might violate the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, which requires environmental reviews before federal money is spent,” Urbina wrote.
But on Monday, Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack reneged on that position, according to reports from Bloomberg news. "As indicated in previous statements, USDA will not make any policy changes related to rural housing loans."
He added that he would authorize "an Administrative Notice reaffirming that rural housing loans are categorically excluded under the National Environmental Policy Act” as soon as tomorrow.
Without a NEPA review, rural home loans will continue to be limited to a far less comprehensive national study by the EPA, which does not admit public comment and focuses solely drinking water.