One of the biggest barriers to investment in infrastructure all across the United States is the long, costly, and unpredictable permitting process. If you have any doubts, just consider the Keystone XL pipeline extension.
Proposed by TransCanada in 2008, approved by the Canadian government and the State of South Dakota in 2010, it floundered around in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, and State Department for another five years before President Barack Obama rejected it on Nov. 6, 2015. A year and four months later, President Donald Trump reversed Mr. Obama’s decision and permitted Keystone XL.
Along the way, billions of dollars were put at risk, hundreds of millions lost, and Americans were whipped into furious conflict as supporters and opponents bickered.
With minor modifications, that story could be repeated for hundreds of infrastructure projects over the past decade and more.
Many of the delays and much of the waste could have been avoided with a more rational, more efficient, more transparent, and more rapid federal permitting process.
That’s what an executive order Mr. Trump released August 15 is intended to achieve.
In a summary released by the White House, the administration said the executive order would “require agencies to process environmental reviews and permitting decisions for major projects under a ‘One Federal Decision’ plan, meaning a lead agency is identified and works will all relevant agencies to develop a unified schedule for completion” and “establish a two-year goal for the Federal Government to process all of the actions required by Federal law for the environmental reviews and permits of major infrastructure projects.
It would empower the Council on Environmental Quality to “develop and implement a list of actions that will help facilitate the Federal environmental reviews” and “mediate interagency disputes” to ensure efficient and timely decisions.
It would also repeal an Obama executive order that made climate change expectations a key element of decisions affecting floodplains. The new order wouldn’t prohibit those considerations but would make them optional.
Not only corporations that work on infrastructure but the American public should welcome the new order. It’s bound to save billions of dollars while speeding the process of repairing, updating, and expanding our infrastructure to meet the needs of a population growing in numbers and demands.
A 2014 Government Accountability Office study found that it took an average of 7 years to complete the permitting process for a complex highway project — that’s 7 years even before construction could begin. Individual federal agencies generally take 3.7 to 5 years to complete environmental reviews. The average six-year delay for major infrastructure projects costs the nation $3.7 trillion dollars.
Mr. Trump’s order calls for the Office of Management and Budget to develop a two-year governmentwide modernization goal for environmental reviews and permitting decisions while maintaining environmental protections. It also sets a goal of having the decisions themselves made in 2 years or less.
All of this is good, but the order could have been strengthened — and could still be if the president amended it — by requiring that if the applicant for a permit responded in timely fashion to all agency requests, and the two-year (or some other) mark passed without the agency’s announcing a decision, the project would be approved automatically unless newly available information made it highly likely that construction would cause major hazard to the public.
That would make it clear that agency personnel who opposed a project couldn’t prevent its construction by simply stretching out the permitting process indefinitely — as happened with Keystone XL.
Even without that, the new executive order should save billions of dollars directly by streamlining and expediting the permitting process for infrastructure projects. It should also lead to more and safer highways, bridges, railroads, airports, and pipelines, saving more billions of dollars — and in many instances lives — indirectly.
• E. Calvin Beisner is founder and national spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.
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