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Worthwhile effort to shorten infrastructure review process

The Trump administration’s recent decision to streamline the environmental review process for U.S. infrastructure projects drew criticism from the usual suspects on the left, but it’s difficult to argue that some changes aren't needed.

The administration seeks to update the way federal agencies implement the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. The law mandates that federal projects that could “significantly affect” the environment be accompanied by an Environmental Impact Statement.

Completing the EIS process can take several years, during which time no work can occur on a proposed federal project or private projects that require federal permits.

“Between 2010 and 2017, the Department of Transportation completed 170 EISs, taking an average of six and a half years each,” Eli Dourado, a senior research fellow at Utah State University, wrote recently at

Dourado notes that even projects with limited, if any, environmental impact must obtain EIS exemptions through an environmental assessment (EA) document. Those can run hundreds of pages.

“All that paperwork might be worth the trouble if NEPA really protected the environment,” Dourado writes. “But environmental review is a procedural hurdle, not a conservationist step. Even if an EIS identifies negative environmental effects, an agency remains within its rights to proceed with the project or approval, as the Supreme Court has affirmed.”

He says NEPA also slows projects that progressives covet, such as offshore wind farms. Thomas J. Madison Jr., an infrastructure consultant in Albany, N.Y., notes that red tape has led to just one small offshore project being installed in U.S. coastal waters.

Madison cites an interview by Thomas Brostrom, CEO of the U.S. division of wind farm giant Orsted, in which Brostrom said securing permits here requires dealing with as many as 20 federal state and local regulatory agencies. In Europe, one agency is involved.

“While Europeans are hardly known for their light touch on environmental approvals, they’ve apparently figured out something our government has yet to learn,” Madison writes at “Energy projects in the United States — and infrastructure projects of all kinds — are drowning in an ocean of onerous regulation and crying out for reform.”

The Trump administration proposes limiting EA documents to 75 pages, to be completed within a year, with a two-year timeline for the EIS process. The new regulations also wouldn’t require agencies to consider the projects’ climate change impact, a particularly troublesome proposal in the view of environmental activists.

Dourado says, however, that regulations “can’t change Supreme Court precedent on what effects are covered by NEPA. The proposed regulations adhere closely to case law, directing federal agencies to follow the Court’s standards.”

Politicians from both parties want to see the United States upgrade its infrastructure, while Democrats in particular insist on more clean energy. To accomplish those goals, Madison writes, “the U.S. … must simplify and streamline these burdensome (regulatory) practices.” Perhaps the administration will succeed in doing that.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›