March 11, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
In the early 1930s, the Empire State Building was constructed within about 13 months. Our 55-story Bank of America Plaza in Atlanta was built within a similar timeframe. Today, these construction schedules are uncommon.
Vital infrastructure projects suffer delays averaging over four years and often take decades to complete, because of cumbersome, confusing federal regulations. As a former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development and chief of staff to Sen. Johnny Isakson, I watched onerous federal regulations hamper construction projects in our communities.
While I believe compliance with federal regulations are a must, I also believe the federal government should provide a commonsense regulatory framework that matches the pace of innovation. The National Environmental Policy Act falls short and must be revised.
Enacted 50 years ago, NEPA established a national policy for the environment, created the Council on Environmental Quality and set a framework for applying that policy to proposed projects. Well-intentioned but outdated, NEPA’s duplicative regulatory processes inhibit community development and vital upgrades to deteriorating infrastructure. Project plans are over-scrutinized and constantly subject to frivolous lawsuits, impeding progress and development.
The costs and consequences of delay are not limited to frustrated taxpayers, investors and project managers. Too often, the consequences of inaction negatively impact public safety and the very environmental improvements that NEPA was enacted to protect.
Neglecting to quickly replace a crumbling bridge puts drivers in danger. Slow walking upgrades to energy-inefficient buildings results in more waste and pollution. America’s deteriorating power grid wastes 6 percent of the electricity it transmits — the equivalent of 200 average-sized coal-burning power plants and an extra 240 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
When ports are unable to modernize due to regulations, it reduces competitiveness and drives shipping to other locations, requiring goods to be trucked over longer distances. Even renewable energy projects such as solar fields and wind farms often require a decade for approval.
This January, the Trump administration proposed the first comprehensive reforms to NEPA since 1978. The goal is a more efficient, effective and timely federal review process that addresses 50 years of federal mission creep and duplicative regulatory authority among a growing number of agencies.
Overlapping jurisdictions complicate the federal review process and bury local leaders under the weight of red tape, agency redundancies and conflicting regulations. The proposed reforms to NEPA establish clearer lines of authority and consolidate the decision-making process while furthering our national commitment to environmental protection.
In 2012, Canada enacted major reforms to its federal environmental review process, encouraging a maximum timeline of two years for most projects. The results were fewer bureaucratic delays without jeopardizing robust environmental protections. The CEQ under President Donald Trump has proposed a similar two-year timeline.
Our Georgia Department of Transportation reports that the average environmental assessment takes as many as 24 to 30 months to complete, sometimes longer. Here at home, this NEPA reform proposal is a welcome step forward.
Among the smart reform proposals is soliciting more technically feasible options for consideration in environmental impact statements, bringing more voices and solutions into the review process. Another, following Germany’s lead, is protection against frivolous legal challenges.
Today, activists encourage Americans to reactively file lawsuits against development projects at every stage of the process. In Germany, protection from frivolous legal obstruction has not only quickened its review process but has also improved the quality and effectiveness of civic participation in the project development and public hearing process.
Perhaps the most obvious of the proposed reforms is to limit federal oversight of state and local projects, when appropriate. We in Georgia have our own Environmental Protection Division that monitors and assesses the environmental impact of state projects.
Our dedicated professionals inhabit, enjoy and protect the local environment with far clearer perspective than that of some federal employees tasked from hundreds of miles away with developing blanket, one-size-fits-all regulations. A project with minimal federal funding or involvement should be overseen primarily by local authority.
Former Georgia governor and current U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last year said, “Years of costly analysis and delays are not an acceptable solution — especially when data and experience show us we can get this work done with strong environmental protection standards as well as protect communities, livelihoods and resources.”
The Trump administration’s proposed improvements to the NEPA process are long overdue. They deserve our enthusiastic support to ensure Georgia’s economic competitiveness, public safety and efficient environmental protection.
Chris Carr is the attorney general of Georgia.
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