Last week House Republicans unveiled several pieces of legislation to reduce permitting timelines and expand the development of all American energy sources. In the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) reintroduced the Building U.S. Infrastructure through Limited Delays and Efficient Reviews (BUILDER) Act to modernize the permitting and approval process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Originally enacted in 1970, NEPA has become a major obstacle to energy and environmental progress. It takes an average of four and a half years to conduct an environmental review of a project at the federal level. According to a study updated in June 2020 from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), one-quarter of the 1,276 projects undergoing NEPA review at the Department of Energy took more than six years to complete.
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The BUILDER Act will look to address the permitting timelines under NEPA by reducing bureaucratic red tape. Key provisions of the legislation include:
- Ensuring practical project review timelines;
- Clarifying duties of federal, state, tribal and local governments when conducting an environmental review and ensuring project applicants and the public are informed;
- Establishing and clarifying the threshold determinations for preparing an environmental document under NEPA; and
- Emphasizing early coordination with stakeholders and federal agencies.
The BUILDER Act does not “gut environmental standards” but instead helps to fix a severely broken process. The reality is NEPA was put in place before many federal and state environmental laws, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, and the result has been a complex, burdensome web of regulatory hoops that often impede projects that would have long-term economic and environmental benefits. As Rep. Graves said in a press release, “Our bill fixes [the current permitting] approach – while protecting the environment – and updates NEPA so it can fulfill its purpose and deliver to taxpayers the infrastructure enhancements, coastal wetlands restoration, flood protection and other improvements it currently impairs.”
“[NEPA] is part of a broader set of checks on development that have done a lot of good over the years but are doing a lot of harm now. When they were designed, these bills were radical reforms to an intolerable status quo. Now they are, too often, powerful allies of an intolerable status quo, rendering government plodding and ineffectual and making it almost impossible to build green infrastructure at the speed we need.”
Indeed, NEPA’s drawn-out and costly project review process is ironically being used to stall progress on the climate front and block infrastructure development at all levels–from next-generation nuclear technologies to new transmission lines, bridges and highways. A 2022 analysis from the Bloomberg Editorial Board found that 42% of projects undergoing NEPA review at the Department of Energy were related to clean energy, transmission or environmental protection. Just 15% of environmental assessments concerned fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the average review will set you back a whopping $4.2 million, research from the American Petroleum Institute found. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) can routinely run hundreds of pages.
The result is a cumbersome permitting system that stifles innovation, hinders investment, and stunts meaningful climate and energy progress.
Permitting reform is key to unleashing economic innovation and meeting America’s ambitious environmental targets. Congress would do well to embrace a much-needed NEPA overhaul.
Nathalie Voit is a freelance content creator and a graduate of the University of Florida. She is an alumni of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.