Reform of the federally required process of project impact review and permitting is a big missing piece of the U.S. infrastructure future.
Unfortunately, there’s some confusion about how that process works—and the importance of preserving reviews and permits while setting reasonable limits on the ability of opponents to block needed infrastructure projects.
Delays to some energy and transportation projects can stretch past two years.
In recent weeks, we have seen Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) withdraw his narrow energy project permit reform measure from a continuing budget resolution to enable its passage to fund the federal government. His proposal included a special exemption from judicial challenge to complete the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline project. The carve-out didn’t sit well with Senate progressives and cast the entire effort in a bad light. After Manchin withdrew his measure, of course, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day to keep the price high.
Mindful of the billions of dollars of transmission upgrades needed, including those to connect critical renewable energy sources, three major grid operators already agreed to change project approvals to a first-ready, first-built priority instead of a first-come, first-serve approach. More action like that must be taken that only Congress can mandate. But that also means Congress must respect the importance of project review and permitting while reaching a compromise to expedite the shift to clean power sources.
A menu of good sense reforms to National Environmental Protection Act regulations had already been made by ACEC in response to Trump administration ideas.
So far, all impetus for change has come from the White House. The Biden administration in April restored National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) regulatory features scuttled by the Trump administration. They include requiring federal agencies to evaluate all relevant environmental impacts of decisions they make, with authority given to work with communities to develop and analyze alternative approaches to minimize environmental and public health costs. Permits must be acquired separate from the NEPA process, of course, and while it is entangling and the source of many delays, this dual system can protect the public interest.
But NEPA reviews have to speed up, and the American Council of Engineering Cos. in 2020 made a thoughtful list of possible regulatory fixes. Among other things, it endorsed limiting legal challenges to those raised in the public comment period and set a one-year time limit to finish an environmental analysis or a concise review and a two-year limit for longer impact statements. Environmental document page limits also make sense, ACEC concluded.
Is Congress up to the challenge? What’s needed is a compromise on issues broader than Manchin’s narrow plan, especially since the alternative is stagnation and delay when climate change urgency leaves little time left to implement needed solutions.