U.S. Environmental Reviews Put Off Infrastructure Projects For Half A Decade

Energy

Photo of Tim Pearce

9:31 PM 04/25/2018

Building on or developing land in the U.S. could take half a decade to conduct costly environmental reviews before a single shovel-full of dirt is moved.

The House Natural Resources Committee placed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), often called the “Magna Carta” of environmental policy, on trial in a Wednesday hearing.

“The NEPA environmental review process is broken,” James Coleman, a professor of energy and natural resources law at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, told the committee. “We have lost decades of investment while environment reviews grow longer and longer.”

Countries generally thought to be “environmental leaders” have environmental review processes that last less than half the time a U.S. review takes. Other countries’ reviews usually average about two years, and Canada has reduced its average review time to 300 days, Coleman pointed out. “Whenever an investor considers building U.S. infrastructure that would require a federal permit and impact statement, he or she must consider whether it is worth waiting five or more years,” Coleman said. “How can we ensure that the U.S. does not fall behind our global competitors?”

The NEPA process, which has grown increasingly longer since averaging 3.4 years a decade ago, is drowning in demands for more comprehensive analysis. Judicial rulings force agencies to conduct environmental reviews over and over again, adding detail after detail. The minutiae of the reviews adds up and results in a single environmental review totaling more than 1,000 pages when regulations say reviews should be no longer than 150.

“Americans, as part of the world’s most litigious society, may have grown used to environmental reviews stretching over decades, but investors know that they can invest in other countries where the permitting system is more predictable,” Coleman said.

To stop reviews from dragging out for years, Coleman recommends Congress place a time limit on reviews while ignoring “the never-ending calls to further expand environmental reviews.”

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