National Environmental Policy Act update needed to unlock investment, further environmental progress

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America was built from the ground up by innovative and hard-working people driven by big ambitions and a can-do spirit. Together they built the transcontinental railroad and the Interstate Highway System to connect our country. They built the pipelines and electrical grids to power our country. They built the broadband networks to keep our country on the cutting edge.

Today, unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to complete such undertakings. 

The problem isn’t a lack of will or investment, but burdensome and outdated regulations that cause public and private projects to take longer to get approved than to get built. These delays affect critical infrastructure and development projects by hindering the investment and job growth that accompanies them, and often undermine the potential environmental protections supported by these projects. Improvements are long overdue.

Fortunately, the Trump administration has proposed revisions to the 50-year old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations to unlock investment in America and unleash a building boom that will modernize our deteriorating infrastructure and put more Americans to work in middle-class sustaining jobs.

To understand the need for NEPA modernization, it’s first necessary to understand how the law has been abused. The intent of NEPA is to ensure federal agencies make informed permitting decisions associated with a wide variety of public and private development projects. Those reviews are just as important now as they were in the 1970s, but instead of aging gracefully, the review process has grown increasingly outdated, and is too often used as a tool to obstruct investment and block new infrastructure.

This permitting paralysis does nothing to enhance environmental protections, but it does cause significant delays, added costs, and sometimes blocks projects entirely. A 2018 report by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which oversees NEPA, found that the average amount of time to complete an Environmental Impact Statement from 2010-2017 was more than four and a half years — far longer than it takes to complete most projects. These delays drive away capital investment — and the great ripple effect of jobs that come with it. And the health and safety of our economy and environment are often left as collateral damage.

For example, an airport runway expansion in Taos, N.M.—which pilots said would increase accessibility and safety of landings—was delayed more than 20 years due to NEPA reviews. In Grand Haven, Mich., a two-lane roadway and bridge project to cut down on congestion and handle an additional 15,000 to 20,000 cars was delayed 16 years by NEPA reviews. In suburban Maryland just outside of the nation’s capital, the 16-mile “Purple Line” public transit project found itself mired in 14 years of NEPA reviews and associated litigation before gaining approval. These are just a few examples of projects that have been, or currently are, stuck in the rabbit hole of NEPA reviews.

NEPA regulations have not had any meaningful updates since 1978, and there is clearly room for improvement. Technology has advanced dramatically in 40 years including tools now available to more efficiently conduct environmental reviews and public engagement. Better processes will allow for shorter timelines for reviews and permitting decisions—and they will unlock our economic potential. 

Consistent with its environmental mission, modernizing NEPA will accelerate projects that improve the efficiency of our transportation and distribution systems, thereby reducing traffic congestion and associated emissions. It will also spur investment in renewable energy sources and transmission infrastructure, much of which is subject to delays by current NEPA procedures. And timelier implementation of conservation projects will help mitigate environmental impacts, such as damaging floods and wildfires.

Moreover, modernizing NEPA regulations will in no way alter protections contained in our core environmental statutes. Rather, these updates will facilitate timely and appropriately scoped environmental reviews and permitting decisions for critical infrastructure projects requiring federal agency approvals.

In short, while NEPA is intended to serve as a decision-making tool and environmental “shield,” it is too often exploited as a “sword” used to delay permits and block investment in new infrastructure. This does not protect our environment or our economy, and in fact, often has the opposite effect. That’s why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and North America’s Building Trades Unions strongly support NEPA reforms proposed by the White House. To promote innovation and to strengthen our economy, we will continue working to advance these reforms on behalf of American workers and businesses.

Tom Donohue is CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Sean McGarvey is president of North America’s Building Trades Unions.

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