- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

A congressional task force says energy production, the construction of affordable homes and hurricane protection for New Orleans have been hampered by a 35-year-old federal law known as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“We have heard from numerous industries that expensive and time-consuming legal and procedural delays are preventing energy production and construction projects,” Rep. Cathy McMorris, Washington Republican and chairwoman of the House Task Force on Improving the National Environmental Policy Act.

The 1970 law was designed to protect the environment. The 22-member task force has held four hearings across the country to assess NEPA’s role in accessing affordable energy, building roads and homes, and managing the nation’s natural resources.

NEPA, which established a national environmental policy framework, has “resulted in thousands of lawsuits,” holding up some projects for more than 20 years and killing others, said Jennifer Zuccarelli, a task force spokeswoman.

“The NEPA process, as it has evolved from a vague, extremely short statute, has grown into a massive, unclear process that hurts communities as they wait decades for homes, buildings, roads, energy and job-creating projects,” Miss Zuccarelli said.

NEPA requires the U.S. government to evaluate the environmental impact of any significant project undertaken by a federal agency, financed with federal money, or requiring a federal permit. It further mandates that the results of the government assessment be made public and that the public decide whether its benefits outweigh its drawbacks.

On Friday, the task force said NEPA lawsuits at least twice had prevented system improvements to protect New Orleans from a hurricane. It said the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in 1996 sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and blocked a project to raise and fortify levees around New Orleans.

It also cited a Los Angeles Times story that said a Save the Wetlands lawsuit filed in 1977 killed plans approved by Congress to create a “massive hurricane barrier to protect New Orleans.” The plan was created after Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

A federal judge stopped plans for the hurricane barrier after finding that an environmental-impact statement drafted by the Army Corps of Engineers was flawed. The corps abandoned the project by the mid-1980s.

Rep. Thelma Drake, Virginia Republican and a member of the congressional NEPA task force, says it is clear that NEPA “plays a role in hampering our ability as a nation to develop efficient supply chains capable of providing Americans with affordable energy.”

“For years, construction projects that could have mitigated adverse impacts to our supply have been needlessly blocked due to endless red tape and a sluggish federal bureaucracy,” the congresswoman added.

The NEPA panel, comprising 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats who are members of the House Resources Committee, was charged in April with making recommendations for improving NEPA. The task force will submit a report to the full committee by year’s end.

The task force will hold its fifth hearing on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

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