The Hill: Speeding up environmental reviews is good for the economy and the environment

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Speeding up environmental reviews is good for the economy and the environment

Jonathan Wood, Opinion Contributor
February 6, 2020

In 2011, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum urging federal agencies to “take steps to expedite permitting and review,” including “setting clear schedules for completing steps in the environmental review and permitting process.” Such bureaucratic delays, Obama explained, interfered with the “engine of job creation and economic growth[.]”

In recognizing the significant costs that excess bureaucracy imposes, Obama was in good company. Presidents of both political parties long have sought to make the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — a federal statute that requires agencies to produce reports on the environmental effects on their actions — work for the American people.

In 1981, for example, President Reagan’s Council on Environmental Quality, a White House agency charged with implementing the statute, issued guidance encouraging agencies to complete these reviews within 12 months. In 1997, President Clinton’s Council on Environmental Quality reported that agencies were producing overly long environmental reports, at great expense and delay, in an unsuccessful attempt to “litigation-proof” their decisions without any apparent improvement in quality (or reduction in litigation).

Despite these bipartisan efforts, NEPA’s problems keep worsening. Agencies do not systematically track the costs and expense of complying with NEPA (a common problem in environmental statutes). Still, the available data reveal a process that is somehow even more bloated and bureaucratic than when Clinton’s Council on Environmental Quality criticized it.

According to a report by the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project, the average time required to complete a NEPA review has steadily risen from 2.9 years in 1998 to 3.8 in 2006, to 4.2 in 2010, and 5.1 in 2016. The reports produced through this process have grown increasingly unwieldy, from a median length of 650 pages in the 1990s to 1,600 in the 2010s. The government-wide cost to produce all this paperwork is likely between $1 billion and $5 billion per year.

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