Agencies Adjust Internally Amidst COVID-19, Groups Say Not Enough

Mar 25, 2020

Social distancing at a WY Public Service Commission meeting
Credit Public Service Commission

Wyoming agencies are making internal changes aimed at slowing the spread COVID-19 while keeping the public in the loop. Several are looking to hold public meetings via telephone or online including the Wyoming Public Service Commission and Department of Environmental Quality.

Some advocacy groups, though, worry there's still too many barriers to keep the status quo with public comment deadlines.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Powder River Basin Resource Council sent the Governor's office a letter today requesting a top-down order to postpone all public comment periods.

"While some permit documents and rulemaking proposals that are the subject of open comment periods are available online, not all documents are. Additionally, many in our state have limited access or no access to high-speed internet, and with libraries shutdown as well, access to paper documents at state agency offices is needed to fulfill comment period requirements," read the release.

The groups highlight an April 15 deadline for public comment on a Public Service Commission investigation into Rocky Mountain Power's Integrated Resource Plan.

They also raised concerns over the April 23 deadline for public comment over the proposed Brook Mine permit overseen by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which is available online. The DEQ declined to postpone the Brook Mine public comment period.

"Since the application is available from multiple sources and there is still ample time for review under the public comment period, DEQ cannot grant your request to extend the public comment period for the Brook Mine coal permit application," read an email from DEQ Deputy Director Alan Edwards that was sent to the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

Edwards said the requests to postpone other public comment periods is under consideration.

Shannon Anderson, staff attorney with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said the internal adjustments from agencies are a step forward, but there's little reason why comment periods couldn't be put off for 30 to 60 days.

"Our membership right now is telling us they want to focus on their family, their health, their work situation, how to get groceries… the last thing on their mind, frankly, is submitting comments to some government agency," she said.

Gov. Mark Gordon said he hasn't made a decision on the matter.

"It does seem to me that... now perhaps people can write their comments. And we'll have some time to discuss those. So I don't have a specific answer on that, but let me say I'm taking that into consideration," he said.

Gordon said he's considering easing regulatory burdens to the energy industry.

3/26 Story Update: Ranchester Senator Bo Biteman sent a letter to Gordon urging him not to delay the permit process.

"[It] would only add to the economic devastation that is engulfing our state and our nation. We must be doing whatever we can to limit the hardships on business and getting Wyomingites back to work as soon as possible... public comments can still be submitted online during this time," said Biteman in the letter.

The DEQ Water Quality Division announced its following the Governor's request to limit person-to-person contact by moving to electronic document submission. It's encouraging the public and permittees to now submit documents electronically.

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has suspended its hearings before commissioners throughout April. The agency will continue to process permits.

While not a state agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is instructing employees to telework and practice social distancing. The agency expects to receive public comment and execute oil and gas lease sales as normal. BLM field offices in Wyoming held its Q1 auction on March 24, selling 75 parcels for $3.4 million.

Correction: The story initially stated the proposed Brook Mine permit was not available online, while that was not the case. It's available here.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.