Here in gorgeous Colorado, a federal law enacted in 1970 — the well-intentioned yet obstructive National Environmental Policy Act — has forced many infrastructure projects to unnecessarily wait years for approval.
For example, the Gross Reservoir Expansion Project has languished for nearly 17 years. As of 2019, the project — which would divert more water from the Colorado River to Denver residents — was still up in the air. One of the few holdups has been a single, lingering federal permit.
Similarly, an attempt to pave a privately-financed road through White River National Forest has been investigated — with no result — since 2009. Reasonable minds may differ, but the fact that this permitting process has lasted 11 years is indefensible. Fortunately, the Trump administration is working to end this silliness.
The intent of NEPA is to ensure environmental stewardship. As the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) puts it, NEPA “requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of proposed major federal actions.”
The law provides a process for how water, transportation and other infrastructure projects are approved, what expectations must be met for project approval and much more.
NEPA triggers an average of 170 exhaustive environmental impact studies (EISs) and 10,000 smaller, environmental assessments (EAs) annually. A single project often requires approval by several different agencies. CEQ notes, “The increased costs and complexity of NEPA reviews and litigation make it very challenging for large and small businesses to plan, finance, and build projects in the United States."
States and localities find themselves mired down by the process. The average highway project stalls out more than seven years before approval — more time than it took to win World War II! Meanwhile, cities like Denver keep growing.
NEPA is an intricate and wide-reaching law that you would think might be adjusted with time. You would think, anyway.
I turn 30 this August. Yet for more than a decade longer than I’ve been alive, there hasn’t been a single comprehensive update to NEPA regulations. There was only one substantive amendment in 1986.
But not one comprehensive update in four decades!
Much has improved in America — and in Colorado — in 40 years. We have a far cleaner environment. Smog pales in comparison to the 1970s. Numerous technological developments have reduced emissions of all kinds. Consumers now hold environmental stewardship in high esteem — something we especially cherish in the Rocky Mountains — resulting in a more sustainable society. The nation is now a net exporter of both oil and natural gas for the first time — while remarkably reducing our carbon footprint in the process.
The idea that policymakers haven’t taken a crack at streamlining NEPA in all this time underscores just how pervasive the “government-knows-best” attitude really is. Fortunately, thanks to the Trump administration, there’s hope.
Colorado Politics reported recently that CEQ wants to change things. Here in Denver on Tuesday, CEQ will hold one of two public hearings on proposed revisions. Notes the Colorado Politics report: “The proposal intends to speed up the act process and relieve some of developers’ burdens that the Trump administration say arise from completing environmental impact statements and environmental assessments, which can take several years to complete.”
CEQ wants to modernize and streamline its NEPA regulations “by simplifying and clarifying regulatory requirements, incorporating key elements of the One Federal Decision policy, codifying certain case law and CEQ guidance, updating regulations to reflect current technologies and agency practices,” and more.
It’s about time. After four decades, Colorado — like the rest of the country — needs relief. As colleagues at the Millennial Policy Center and I wrote in a recent paper, the Trump administration acknowledges private sector leadership on environmental innovation, and it must undertake “a robust and strategic deregulatory effort that dwarfs what even the Trump EPA has already accomplished.”
Environmental activists vigorously oppose the NEPA changes, but CEQ’s effort is eminently reasonable. Its proposal would limit EISs to two years and hold EAs down to one year. It would consolidate agency participation, clarify terms, reduce unnecessary burdens and delays and take additional steps.
Let’s be honest: to oppose such sensible reforms is to endorse delays in project approval that can take a decade or more, without any rational basis. Coloradans, like all Americans, deserve better. CEQ should be commended for wanting to cut the green tape — and for seeking input here in Colorado, where NEPA issues are prevalent.