Jul 15, 2020 - 5:15pm

Quick Take: Your Primer on NEPA Updates

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President Trump on Wednesday finalized updates to 40-year-old infrastructure permitting requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The changes are intended to streamline decision making for important infrastructure projects and mitigate delays that slow or block investments that improve safety, the environment, quality of life and create jobs.  

Why the need for updates? 

NEPA’s rules have not been comprehensively updated since 1978, around the same time the first personal computer was introduced. Since that time, NEPA reviews have been increasingly misused to gin up opposition, create bureaucratic roadblocks, and delay progress through litigation – adding unreasonable costs and hampering economic activity. 

Why does it matter? 

Our nation’s growing population and expanding economy means growing demand for critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, railways, airways, waterways, transit, housing, telecommunications, and energy projects—including renewables. A modernized NEPA process will improve our ability to make progress on all those areas.  And, as our nation is undergoing important conversations about inequality, there is a chance to invest in infrastructure like mass transit which will serve underprivileged communities and create opportunities—but NEPA reforms are critical to speeding up their delivery.  

Numbers to know: 

4 and 7. Due in part to significant and unnecessary delays caused by NEPA, the average infrastructure project takes over four years just to get a “go” or “no go” decision. For transportation projects, the average decision time is seven years. At a time when unemployment has skyrocketed, especially for communities of color, long term investments in infrastructure can promote equality and economic recovery with an estimated 22,000 jobs created for every $1 billion spent.    

Common Questions: 

  • How will this combat inequality and elevate public participation? Public participation is avital part of the NEPA review process, and this rule gets back to the basics by realigning the local-federal partnership by increasing the local role.  And from a process standpoint, the rule also makes NEPA more accessible to communities by requiring concise analyses, better coordination of public hearings and comment deadlines, especially for complex projects that are reviewed by multiple federal agencies.   
  • Which projects do these rule changes pertain to? Many different types of projects require a NEPA process, including solar and wind farms, mass transit, roads, highways and bridges, and much more.  Organizations and industries representing all those projects have spoken about the need to improve the permitting process.  Notably, addressing climate change will require major investments in clean energy technologies, and building those projects without these reforms would have been more difficult.   
  • But will this undermine environmental protections? No, these updates to NEPA don’t change any underlying environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.  Projects still must undergo an environmental review and there still must be public input – as there should be.  Reducing delays for sustainable transportation projects, for example, will reduce congestion related emissions and improve communities’ quality of life.   

Our take:

“After two decades of discussion about the need for reform, spanning multiple Administrations, we’re thankful that the Trump Administration has made this issue a priority and  taken thoughtful action,” said U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue. "These NEPA updates will make the federal permitting process more predictable and transparent. It will establish timelines for a decision and make requirements more straightforward.” 

He added: “Make no mistake: NEPA is vital to protecting our environment. The Chamber wholeheartedly supports a thorough environmental review process for projects. This NEPA update does not change existing environmental laws, and it maintains public input opportunities that are so important.” 

Read the full statement  

Further Reading:  

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