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Congress Spars over Environmental Permitting

Democrats say that there is bipartisan support to reduce red tape but that environmental regulations shouldn’t be weakened to speed up the permitting process.

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Republicans at a recent congressional hearing charged that delays and inefficiencies in the federal environmental review and permitting system for infrastructure projects are out of control and are causing economic hardships.

Delaying infrastructure projects “hurts the economy and communities in need of modern improved infrastructure,” Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) said at a 6 September hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Democrats shot back in response that that there is bipartisan support for reducing red tape. However, they stressed that the Trump administration should not try to short-circuit the permitting process at the expense of environmental protection.

“Federal Power Grabs”

Gianforte, who chairs the committee’s Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy, and Environment, said that environmental protection statutes, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), were passed “with noble intentions years ago, and no one disputes the need for a healthy environment.” However, he added that in recent years, “federal agencies have taken it upon themselves to broaden their interpretation of these statutes and made too many rules and regulations that stretch the bounds of the authority Congress has provided,” resulting in increased permitting workloads and associated delays.

He noted, for instance, that under the 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone, 209 counties in 22 states are designated as “nonattainment areas,” locations where air pollution levels exceed national air quality standards. In these areas, projects that could produce emissions are subject to more-rigorous permitting requirements.

Gianforte said that the ozone standards and other “federal power grabs have increased the number of project applicants, lengthened wait times, and caused cost projections to balloon.” He also applauded the Trump administration for its focus on prioritizing “infrastructure modernization and federal permitting reform” and for issuing two executive orders directing federal agencies to reduce permit application processing times.

Agency Budgets May Slow Down Permitting

Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said Trump’s recent executive orders “are mostly redundant or superfluous to bipartisan laws already on the book.” One such bipartisan law is the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, enacted in 2015, that established a federal steering council to coordinate and expedite the permitting process.

“We have all the tools we need to expedite the permitting process, if we fully fund them,” she said, explaining that President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 proposed budget fell short by cutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by one third and the Department of the Interior’s budget by 16%.

“It’s hard to see how we can speed up the permitting process when the president is calling for drastic cuts to the agencies that oversee much of the process,” Plaskett said.

Criticizing Environmental Regulations

Daren Bakst, senior research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D. C.–based think tank, put the blame flatly on environmental regulations.

“Federal regulations, particularly environmental regulations, seemingly exist to ensure that critical infrastructure projects never see the light of day,” Bakst testified at the hearing. “Environmental reviews and the federal permitting process for infrastructure projects are a major part of the reason many infrastructure projects are delayed or never come to fruition.”

A Trojan Horse?

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the committee’s Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs, said that President Trump “has a full-blown offensive against the permitting process under NEPA.”

Raskin said that permitting rules are not “a burden,” but rather help everyone. He cited the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a  prime example of the need for environmental enforcements and permits.

“Blaming environmental permitting rules is a way to flatten out and demolish the regulatory process to benefit specific corporations and developers,” Raskin said. “Everybody is for simplifying government and reducing red tape when we can do it, but certainly not at the expense of maintaining the environmental safeguards that the American people have established.”

Christy Goldfuss, former managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration, now a senior vice president for energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy institute based in Washington, D. C., put it more bluntly. She testified at the hearing that those calling for “gutting environmental laws” are using the reform process as “a Trojan horse.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Congress spars over environmental permitting, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO106287. Published on 18 September 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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