President Trump recently announced a major proposal to accelerate federal government permitting for new infrastructure in America. It would advance the construction of roads, bridges, highways and airports, renewable energy projects and important water infrastructure projects such as water storage and treatment facilities.
Since the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was enacted over 50 years ago, the environmental review and permitting process has become unnecessarily complex and time consuming, and extends far beyond what Congress originally intended. For example, the process for completing environmental impact statements for highway projects now exceeds 7 years and statements currently average over 600 pages, and in some instances are thousands of pages long. In many cases, it can take a decade or more before permits are issued and construction can begin.
As the environmental review process under NEPA has become increasingly and unnecessarily complicated, the result is an unpredictable and costly process for agencies, project applicants, and individuals seeking permits and approvals from the federal government. This hinders the development of modern, resilient infrastructure and makes federally-funded projects more expensive for hardworking American taxpayers. Some of our nation’s greatest infrastructure projects were built in less time than we currently spend on the NEPA process. It took four years to build the Golden Gate Bridge, five years to build the Hoover Dam, and less than one year to build the Empire State Building.
For the first time in over 40 years, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is proposing a comprehensive update to its regulations for implementing NEPA. On Feb. 11, CEQ is hosting a public hearing in Denver on this proposal.
CEQ’s proposed rule would modernize its NEPA regulations for the 21st century and make the process more timely, effective, and predictable. The proposed rule would set a two-year time limit for completing environmental impact statements, and promote better coordination and communication between federal agencies. This proposal also expands public participation in the NEPA process and includes provisions to ensure NEPA documents are concise and clear, and serve their purpose of informing decision-makers and the public regarding the environmental review of proposed major federal actions.
Additionally, the proposed rule would not change any substantive environmental protections. Over the years, Congress has enacted and revised numerous environmental laws, including the modern Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act (and important amendments to those foundational laws); laws that established new federal management standards and planning processes for national forests, public lands, and coastal zones; and laws that established requirements to conserve fish, wildlife, and plant species. Nothing in our proposal would eliminate or diminish these protections to safeguard our environment for the American people.
As public servants, we should strive not only to be thorough in considering the possible impacts of proposed actions, but also to reach decisions in a transparent, timely, and efficient manner so that we can build the infrastructure our nation needs. An efficient process is also critical to ensuring a timely permitting process for management of activities on public lands, such as grazing, forest management, wildfire protection, and environmental restoration.
CEQ has provided for a 60-day public comment period for the proposed rule, which ends on March 10, and we welcome written comments from all interested members of the public. Under President Trump’s leadership, we recognize that both a strong economy and regulatory reform are necessary and vital to protect our environment. An improved NEPA process will continue our nation’s environmental leadership and enhance the quality of life for current and future generations of Americans.
Mary B. Neumayr is the current Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. She was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate on Jan. 2, 2019, and sworn in as chairman on Jan. 10, 2019.