Rebuilding our infrastructure requires rethinking environmental permitting
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The U.S. has been alarmingly bad at building new critical infrastructure, or even adequately maintaining the assets we already have. Almost every major infrastructure project runs into protracted, unnecessary delays and cost overruns. Many such projects are simply scrapped altogether after being smothered for years under a mountain of red tape and litigation. The urgency to shake-up how we deliver infrastructure in this country has never been greater, and reforming the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is exactly the right place to start.

NEPA was established as a tool to help governments assess, understand and mitigate environmental impacts related to the delivery of essential services like infrastructure. Instead, it has become a de facto mechanism for stopping projects in their tracks. This must change now, because the unintended consequences of NEPA’s prolonged delays and denials have put the very backbone of America’s economy at risk.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) most recent “Infrastructure Report Card” grades U.S. infrastructure – including our roads, bridges, dams, electric grid, water systems and other key components – with an appalling D+. ASCE estimates by 2025 we will suffer nearly $4 trillion in losses to our country’s GDP and shed 2.5 million jobs if we continue to delay and defer needed repairs and improvements.

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Of course, providing substantial increases in infrastructure funding will be an essential part of righting this ship, and it appears Washington has finally heard that clarion call. However, without meaningful reforms to NEPA that streamline our broken permitting processes, we will simply be spending good money after bad – again.

As a former Federal Highway administrator, I am all too aware that NEPA reviews can take seven years or more just to approve a single highway project. Sadly, such unwarranted permitting delays aren’t limited only to roads and bridges.

Permitting delays and redundancies have left fingerprints on virtually every element of America’s critical infrastructure. Such delays have hamstrung efforts to build new transmission lines that would move renewable power from the Great Plains to East Coast cities. They have also made it so hard to build offshore wind farms in the U.S. that just a single installation has been sited here to date, while a growing number of European countries are already supplying large portions of their national power demand with offshore wind. As one European developer noted, permitting an offshore wind project in the U.S. requires coordinating with 20 different federal and state agencies; in Europe they work with one.

Another impacted business sector crucial to the development of America’s infrastructure is our mining industry. The very same regulatory delays and burdens hamper our hard-rock mining sector, which is the entry point for infrastructure and energy supply chains. Whether its bridges, pipelines, transmission cables, batteries or solar panels, none of these critical pieces of our economy would exist without a dizzying number of minerals and metals.

Yet, obtaining the permits to open a new copper, nickel or rare earths mine in the U.S. takes an average of seven to ten years, and often longer. Securing the same permits in Canada and Australia, where environmental safeguards are comparable to our own, takes just two to three years.

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It’s not surprising that America’s reliance on mineral imports has hit alarming new levels, nearly doubling in the past two decades. It’s shameful that we possess the same vital minerals within our native soil, but inefficient government policies force us to import them from abroad – to the great detriment to our domestic economy.

Whether it’s highways, electricity transmission projects, new offshore wind turbines or hard-rock mines, broken bureaucracy is grinding progress to a standstill. Rebuilding our infrastructure will require determination, speed and flexibility. This is especially true as we confront the added challenge of new environmental review and permitting requirements related to climate change.

As Billy Fleming, research director of the Ian McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told MIT Technology Review, we need “an activist federal design bureaucracy.” In other words, we indeed need government permitting and funding protocols that protect the environment, even as they support and encourage projects to advance along reasonable timeframes; the two are not mutually exclusive.

More efficient permitting and timely reviews under NEPA is an absolute imperative. Before we can effectively marshal the energy and resources necessary to build the infrastructure of tomorrow, we need to get out of our own way today. Fixing NEPA is the essential first step.

Thomas J. Madison Jr. is an infrastructure consultant who has previously served as Administrator of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.