August 14, 2017

Executive Order Looms on Curbing Environmental Reviews

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order as soon as Tuesday that would sharply compress the time federal agencies spend weighing environmental reviews of highways, bridges and other infrastructure projects.

The order, according to a senior administration official, will require federal agencies to cooperate from the earliest stages of the permitting process for large-scale construction projects, with the goal of eliminating late-stage requests for information or further review that many construction industry officials, developers and elected officials blame for the nation’s slow pace of building critical infrastructure.

The goal is to pare down to “one federal decision” whether a proposed project can go forward, the official said.

Mr. Trump’s executive order is an attempt to get federal agencies to cooperate more readily on environmental reviews, the official said. Once a new project has been approved by the lead federal agency, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the order will require other agencies with jurisdiction to decide whether to issue their own permits within 90 days—with a goal of shortening the federal project review process to two years or less, from as long as a decade or more under current practice.

The administration is trying to address a frustration that has long irked local officials and politicians trying to speed up construction of highways, bridges, pipelines, terminals and other infrastructure: the months and years that can elapse while waiting for federal agencies to review how the new projects will affect surrounding communities and the natural environment. Mr. Trump and his advisers on infrastructure believe they will speed the pace of America’s investment in infrastructure by cutting the amount of time that federal agencies have to review environmental effects.

In shrinking time to evaluate the impact of projects, the administration sets up a likely conflict with environmental groups and others concerned with the irreversible impact of major construction on open lands. The lengthy interval of environmental review has allowed opponents to research, alter and sometimes block major projects that might otherwise have swiftly been approved based on support from elected officials and powerful economic interests.

Mr. Trump’s current order would work within the constraints of existing law and federal regulations, his administration contends. But just like his stated goal to roll back environmental laws and regulations, it raises the chance of a challenge in the courts.

Mr. Trump is also adding provisions for “accountability” for agency employees who don’t move swiftly enough, the official said. Individual agency officials who don’t cooperate in efforts to speed up environmental approvals “will have that counted against their performance,” the official said. Federal agencies will have to report their progress on speeding approvals to the White House budget office, and will also be required to quantify the cost of project delays when they extend reviews.

The order is one of the few concrete developments so far in the president’s push for new investment in the nation’s infrastructure, but it is one the administration says it can take immediately, without rescinding existing rules or seeking changes in statutes from Congress.

Still to come is a set of principles the administration plans to send to Congress in the fall, for the creation of a formal infrastructure bill, which Mr. Trump has said will trigger $1 trillion in new projects nationwide. The administration has said it would put up $200 billion in new federal funding for that program, but hasn’t identified a source for those funds.

The administration has said it would tackle the issue after two priorities that have proved much harder to deliver than expected: repealing the Affordable Care Act and crafting an overhaul of the nation’s tax code.

Work on the permitting order has been under way for roughly five months, the official said. And the administration has taken aim at an area of federal bureaucracy that has proved frustrating to state and local elected officials of both parties who feel major infrastructure projects should be able to move more quickly.

In a panel discussion sponsored by The Wall Street Journal this spring, for instance, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat who served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama, complained about a lengthy environmental review required before his city could begin construction on a new train station. “Sometimes it’s regulation for the sake of regulation,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s administration also tried to fast-track environmental reviews to speed up the construction of major infrastructure projects, such as the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River north of New York City.

Federal permitting agencies, like the Army Corps of Engineers or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, “understand there is very strong, wide bipartisan, federal, state and local frustration with the current system,” the official said.

The administration is trying to create a “more collaborative, more coherent system” for approving building projects like new highways or pipelines, the administration official said. In the process, the administration wants to rein in the ability of stand-alone agencies to delay projects for further environmental review by compelling them to identify all the information they will need to make decisions on permits at the outset of a project application.

“What we’re saying to pretty much every [agency] is you’re going to have less flexibility going forward,” the official said.

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