- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2020

DENVER | Before Colorado could reconstruct and widen an aging 10-mile stretch of Interstate 70, the state had to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a hurdle that soon turned into a brick wall.

The federal permitting process for the $1.2 billion central Denver project took more than 13 years, resulting in a document nearly 16,000 pages long in what civil engineer Matt Girard called “the poster child for the need to update the NEPA process.”

“At the end of the day, the document included 148 individual mitigation requirements that cost the taxpayers roughly $50 million,” said Mr. Girard, who represents the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “At the end of that, the project still saw five legal actions against it.”

Seeking to untangle the increasingly complex and time-consuming NEPA process is the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which held on Tuesday the first of two hearings on a proposed rule to streamline and update the 1970 law by, for example, setting deadlines and page limits for environmental impact statements and assessments.

“We haven’t modernized the rules for projects since 1978,” said Ed Mortimer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, at a press conference. “At the same time, the infrastructure in this country, most of it was built 80 to 100 years ago … You look at other parts of the world that are making these modernizations, and the U.S. is falling behind.”

First, however, the proposed rule must overcome the objections of Democrats and leading environmentalists who accuse the Trump administration of seeking to line the pockets of industry by weakening NEPA’s charge to “look before you leap.”

“Make no mistake: Rolling back NEPA’s procedures is not about modernizing, but make it easier to rubber-stamp projects,” said Yvette Arellano, senior staff at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, at a rally near the hearing at the EPA Region 8 building.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-conversation=”none”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Speaking of those folks, here they are gathered just across the street outside the Alliance Center, where they’ll be rallying in opposition to the rollback as the hearings proceed throughout the day <a href=”https://t.co/8i9vyJApA8”>pic.twitter.com/8i9vyJApA8</a></p>&mdash; Chase Woodruff (@dcwoodruff) <a href=”https://twitter.com/dcwoodruff/status/1227304661142712321?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>February 11, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8”></script>

Another bone of contention is the proposed rule’s declaration that “analysis of cumulative effects is not required under NEPA,” a major change aimed at curbing limitless “what if” scenarios, but one that the Sierra Club warned would “fast-track hundreds of polluting projects around the country.”

Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the proposal presented last month would “gut core protections” and “could effectively take climate change considerations off the table.”

By requiring the federal government to assess the environmental impact of federal actions — and solicit public input — NEPA has prevented the clear-cutting of aspen groves in Gunnison National Park and stopped drilling on Colorado’s North Fork Valley, they said in an op-ed in The Denver Post.

“NEPA was enacted to fix a system that was once broken — one that allowed agencies to divide and destroy neighborhoods so a highway could be built; one that allowed them to build dams without any thought about how they would affect the local salmon runs or native fishing grounds; one that led to federal taxpayers spending billions of dollars on projects that were later found to be devastating to our environment,” they said.

The problem, say critics, is that anti-development forces have weaponized the law to delay for years infrastructure projects like highways, bridges and pipelines.

In some cases, NEPA has stalled projects that would actually benefit the environment. Mr. Girard cited the Central 70 reconstruction in Denver, which would reduce the amount of time vehicles spend idling in traffic during rush hour.

The NEPA process also has begun to hamstring projects designed to combat rising atmospheric carbon dioxide such as solar and wind farms, said Emily Haggstrom, spokeswoman for Consumer Energy Alliance.

“The people who would benefit most from these streamlined regulations will not only be traditional energy organizations, but also our farmers, ranchers, and wind and solar developers,” said Ms. Haggstrom. “That’s really something our communities are demanding right now, and they’re having just as many problems and issues as our traditional energy folks.”

The average time period for an environmental impact statement is 4½ years, and the average length is over 600 pages, but “reviews for some projects have taken much longer,” according to the CEQ. An EIS for a federal highway project averages seven years.

Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton said that the permitting process has grown lengthier as managers attempt to fireproof the permits from the inevitable court challenges. Environmental assessments that were once an inch thick now take up “bookshelves,” she said.

For Ms. Norton, who served from 2001-06 under President George W. Bush, the specter of watching trees die year after year in beetle-kill forests was especially dispiriting.

“It was so frustrating to see a hillside devastated by pine beetles, to know there was a huge fire danger, and not to be able to do anything about it without years of analysis, without our professional foresters spending their time preparing documents instead of actually managing the forests,” said Ms. Norton. “It’s important to analyze environmental impacts, but it’s also important to do it in a way that allows us to achieve end results in a timely way.”

The second CEQ hearing on the NEPA proposed rule is scheduled for Feb. 25 at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C.

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