To Kathleen Sgamma, the Trump administration’s recent unveiling of a proposal to speed up environmental permitting for infrastructure projects marked a huge victory in a battle she has waged for more than a decade.
“The Trump administration really went big here,” said Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based oil and gas trade association. “I think it had something to do with the fact the president was a real estate developer. He knows full well how red tape can tie up projects.”
The National Environmental Policy Act—enacted to ensure that details on the environmental impacts of federal actions are publicly available before the actions begin—is often described as the cornerstone of U.S. environmental laws. The White House Council on Environmental Quality on Jan. 9 proposed to change NEPA regulations so a project’s cumulative environmental effects would no longer have to be considered. That would be one of the most significant changes to the law’s implementation in more than four decades.
The effects of NEPA have become clear even among “people who don’t know the acronym exists,” said Sgamma, who describes herself as advocating for “sanity in the NEPA process” from the moment she joined the energy advocacy group in March 2006. The alliance has more than 300 member companies in 13 states, including Occidental Petroleum Corp., EOG Resources Inc., and Halliburton Energy Services Inc.
Sgamma’s advocacy for overhauling NEPA rules, and for relentlessly promoting fossil-fuel development, has won her plenty of attention.
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians, said he sees Sgamma as his “opposite number” at the Alliance. The two frequently cross paths while testifying before the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, and other state and federal agencies.
“She’s zealous,” Nichols said. “She advocates for her interests, for an industry which is all about making oil and gas money and denying climate change. She’s aggressive and takes no prisoners. I wish she were on our side.”
‘Protect Corporate Interests’
Jon Haubert, founder of H.B. Legacy Media Co., a public relations firm in Parker, Colo. that works with the energy industry, agreed Sgamma is an effective advocate for oil and gas.
“But it’s not about carrying a big microphone with Sgamma,” Haubert said. “She is a student of these issues and has done all the homework there is on the full array of federal issues affecting the West.”
Anne Lee Foster, spokeswoman for Colorado Rising, an anti-fracking group in Boulder County, sees it differently. She said groups like the Alliance “pull the wool over the eyes of the public to protect corporate interests.”
“It’s been proven that groups like these spend millions of dollars of corporate private money spreading disinformation to protect their profits, to undermine science, and to deny the climate crisis, which they’ve know about for decades,” she said.
The Alliance sponsors Western Wire, a website that describes itself as “the go-to source for news, commentary and analysis on pro-growth, pro-development policies across the West.” Foster calls it a disseminator of pro-industry propaganda.
Groups like Colorado Rising “don’t like factual information,” Sgamma said in response. “I would challenge them on what disinformation they say we’re spreading.”
Active on Multiple Issues
Sgamma often testifies before various agencies and lawmaking bodies on energy and environmental issues, including the Endangered Species Act and hydraulic fracturing. She also championed the Interior Department’s decision to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo.
She served as an alternate member of Interior’s Royalty Policy Committee, which sought to help the department set royalty payments for oil, natural gas, and coal mined from public lands before its charter lapsed in 2019. She said one of the alliance’s goals has been to defend federal agency leasing of public land for energy development.
“Environmental groups have challenged us on just about every single federal lease since 2014,” she said.
She refuted accusations that oil and gas companies don’t care about climate change. The industry has helped enhance the availability of cheap natural gas, accelerating the closing or conversion of coal-fired power plants and thus reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, she said.
But NEPA has been among her chief interests. Many Democrats and environmental groups say the White House’s proposed changes amount to a significant watering-down of the law, but Sgamma disagrees.
She said decades of court cases and abuse by groups that she said seek to use NEPA just to stop development have translated to a simple law becoming little more than a way to bog down or stop projects. Trump is just trying to put reasonable parameters—such as time and page limits—around the act, she said.
“Environmental groups are very successful at using NEPA documents to convince judges that analyses could have been done better,” she said. “Everything can always be better. The question is, is it sufficient to analyze the impacts and identify environmentally sensitive alternatives?”
The Trump administration has been “headed in the right direction on several policy issues” affecting the energy sector, Sgamma said.
President George W. Bush, the last Republican to occupy the Oval Office before Trump, was “brow-beaten about being in the tank for oil and gas,” she said. Bush appointees learned to self-censor, she said, and “they understood they weren’t going to be able to make bold policy moves. So we didn’t get much done during the Bush administration.”
Sgamma is also treasurer of the Alliance’s political action committee, which gave 90% of its federal candidate contributions to Republicans in the 2018 election cycle, and 97% in the 2016 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Sgamma said her three years as an Army intelligence officer taught her about leadership at an early stage in her career.
“My specific training came from leading two platoons,” she said. “I came out of the Army as a contractor doing business process reengineering for government projects. From that, I learned about the inefficiencies and bureaucracy of government.”
Prior to joining the Alliance, Sgamma spent 11 years in the information technology sector, where she managed the European consulting practice for a software vendor.
In addition to NEPA, the Alliance’s agenda in the coming months includes dealing with endangered species and other high-priority rules, Sgamma said.
She said the group will be focused on helping get the rulemakings complete and make as many policies “as permanent as possible” before the election— given the chance of a Democrat taking office in 2021.
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