A new report on the Obama Administration admits a stunning lack of oversight of our nation’s bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA is the law that requires all major projects — think highways, bridges, pipelines, transmission lines — to submit to a comprehensive review of their potential environmental impacts prior to construction. NEPA is often the largest, costliest, most time-consuming regulatory hurdle developers face before they can build. It also is a common target for abuse, as there are countless ways to throw a wrench in the process and make the review take even longer (see XL, Keystone). The longer the delay, the more likely the developer walks away. Project opponents don’t even need a “win” on NEPA to win; the delay is often enough.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) administers NEPA, and for the past few years has assured us that it is best suited to streamline the environmental review process. Today’s report shows CEQ hasn’t even been watching. Consider what the General Accountability Office (GAO) found:
- The Administration does not have accurate data on the number or type of environmental reviews conducted each year.
- The Administration does not know how much it spends on environmental reviews, or how much typical environmental reviews cost.
- The Administration has no idea how long a typical NEPA review takes. GAO instead cites to a nonprofit group, the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP). NAEP estimates that the average environmental impact statement (EIS) takes 4.6 years, the highest it’s ever been. NAEP also estimates that the time to complete an EIS increased by 34.2 days each year from 2000 through 2012.
- The Administration thinks the majority of NEPA reviews are the shorter Environmental Assessments (EA) or Categorical Exclusions (CE), but it really doesn’t have any data.
- No government-wide system exists to track NEPA litigation or its associated costs.
- Delays sometimes occur because agencies assume they will be sued and spend more time making the review “litigation-proof.” Yet there is no evidence that these efforts actually improve the review document.
The White House opposed efforts to streamline NEPA in a bill passed by the House last month. Yet the President promised again this year that he would cut the red tape plaguing these reviews. How in heavens name is the Administration properly able to cure what ails NEPA when they’ve made no attempt whatsoever to diagnose the problem?
It’s time for Congress to step in here. Please.