There is significant bipartisan agreement that the need to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure is critical. However, the environmental review process for permitting these infrastructure projects often becomes the scapegoat for any delays. Because of this, there have been a number of efforts to amend, weaken, and even scrap federal environmental review requirements over the years. But this review is critical—not only because it protects clean air and clean water for U.S. residents but also because it allows for public input to be collected and considered, ensuring that affected communities have a chance to weigh in on project alternatives.
Over the past six years, Congress has acted on three separate occasions to address common permitting challenges, passing the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) in 2014, and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2015. These bills provide the federal government with an array of tools to expedite permitting processes, without sacrificing environmental considerations and community input. But with President Donald Trump’s issuance of Executive Order 13807 in August 2017, environmental review is again on the chopping block.
Instead of asking Congress to cut corners and gut cornerstone environmental laws, here are five ways that federal agencies and their partners can use the tools already at their disposal to speed infrastructure permitting.
1. Fully implement existing permitting reforms and authorities that were enacted in the FAST Act, the WRRDA, and MAP-21
The three pieces of legislation noted above provided a number of new tools to federal agencies to speed environmental review. But the Trump administration continues to point to the permitting process as the main cause for project delays. Limited existing data, however, show that delays are more often the result of a lack of funding, failure to govern, and even politics.
As one way to address this, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish a public-facing online tracking system of projects in the permitting process. Project sponsors and the public are now able to use the tracking system—known as the Federal Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard—to expedite projects and understand the true causes of any delays. The permitting dashboard is still very much a work in progress, but it has significant untapped potential that could be improved through an investment in resources to ensure that it is upgraded on a regular basis.
Additionally, extensive and rigorous training components for subject matter experts across the government on how these new tools and authorities affect their work would ensure that the tools are being effectively employed. The Annual Report to Congress for Fiscal Year 2017 from the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC) shows that each agency has at least one updated online training tool. Leaders of permitting in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) should prioritize developing a strong community of practice across the government so that practitioners can regularly share case studies, training tools, and data needs.
2. Appoint people with collaborative project implementation and permitting expertise across the government
It is impossible for environmental review, and therefore permitting, to be streamlined without appropriate staff to do the work. Yet President Trump has failed to appoint people to key positions that could help accelerate project delivery, including positions within the EOP that are integral to coordinating reviews. In 2015, the FPISC was established to bring agencies together to discuss review challenges and share best practices, as well as to provide a connection to the EOP and the president. Yet the Trump administration has still not appointed anyone to lead the FPISC, which indicates a lack of high-level investment in permitting. The administration should make it a priority to fill these positions if it wants to see expedited permitting timelines.
3. Fund environmental review through implementing existing fee authority for cost recovery and regular appropriations
The FAST Act allowed the FPISC to create “a fee structure for project proponents to reimburse the United States for reasonable costs incurred in conducting environmental reviews and authorizations” for certain projects. The FPISC, however, has taken far too long to begin implementing this provision given the relative priority the Trump administration claims to place on expedited permitting. This new source of funding could help substantially, as permitting under the FAST Act only applies to the most complex projects.
4. Study and collect data on environmental review contracting practices
Federal agencies frequently turn to outside firms to conduct environmental reviews. For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has contracted with Environmental Management and Planning Solutions Inc. to do the environmental review for oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The contract award is for $1,667,550.44, and information from the General Services Administration shows that the federal contractor bills $214 per hour for a senior scientist’s time. While this may be a bargain for taxpayers, it is difficult to say for certain given the lack of data and other information on the frequency, cost, or efficacy of outsourcing essential environmental analysis. To address this, Congress should work with the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study and gather information about federal contracting practices for environmental review across the federal government.
5. Remove political influence from the environmental review process
The permitting review process must be objective and free from the political interests and conflicts that can so easily stall, delay, or even derail infrastructure projects. But the administration’s handling of the Hudson Tunnel project, an infrastructure proposal to modernize the bridges and tunnels that ferry more than 200,000 commuters per day to and from New Jersey and Manhattan, lays bare the current level of political meddling in the review process. Since a bipartisan meeting in September 2017, the president has refused to fund the project unless the Senate agrees to fund the southern border wall. The Trump administration points to burdensome environmental reviews as the culprit for delay—yet recently, an administration official was quoted as saying that the administration is “slow-walking” the completed review’s release.
Already, there is evidence that these tools, when used, can ensure that environmental review of major infrastructure projects is efficient. Instead of rushing headlong into further gutting the statutes that provide for public input on infrastructure and that protect clean air, clean water, and wildlife, the administration should put its existing toolkit to use.
Christy Goldfuss is the senior vice president for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress.