The US House has passed, by a 233 to 170 vote, HR 348, which aims to streamline federal reviews of proposed oil and gas, highway, and other transportation projects. Republicans generally supported the bill, while Democrats largely opposed it. The House approved similar bills in the 112th and 113th Congresses. The White House has said President Barack Obama would veto the measure if it reaches his desk.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who led debate in support of the bill, said the White House should be supporting it because it fulfills calls by the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness to streamline the review of federal permit applications.
“It creates shovel-ready projects, which even President Obama claims would create jobs,” Goodlatte said. “In fact, it would generate millions of high-paying, good jobs for our nation’s workers and families, who so desperately need them. It would raise the standard of living of Americans.”
But Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the committee’s ranking minority member who led the opposition in the debate, said HR 348 would jeopardize public safety and health by giving project approval a higher priority over meaningful analysis that is currently required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Under the guise of streamlining the approval process, [it] forecloses potentially critical input from federal, state, and local agencies, as well as from members of the public, to comment on environmentally sensitive construction projects that are federally funded or that require federal approval,” Conyers said.
The congressman also said the bill imposes hard and fast deadlines that may be unrealistic under certain circumstances. “Moreover, if an agency fails to meet these unrealistic deadlines, the bill simply declares that a project must be deemed approved regardless of whether the agency has thoroughly assessed the task. This is an embarrassment,” Conyers said.
HR 348’s purpose
But Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law Subcommittee Chairman Tom Marino (R-Pa.), who introduced the bill on Jan. 14, said it tries to streamline the process by establishing deadlines for environmental reviews and shortening the judicial review window.
“Although recent studies have shown that, on average, an environmental impact study will take 3-4 years, the permitting process for many projects takes years more or, sadly, even decades,” Marino said. “Even more disappointing are indications that average environmental review times are increasing by more than a month per year.”
Marino said final federal decision-making also has been driven by political whims instead of a particular project’s merits of any particular project that would be borne through economic growth and job creation.
“Political pressure should never impede projects of worth that would get Americans back to work,” Marino said. “One recent study found that 7 years of delay on the Keystone XL pipeline have kept us from realizing nearly $175 billion in potential economic activity. At a time when true economic recovery lags and more Americans become disheartened and leave the workforce, such delays are unacceptable.”
But Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who is that subcommittee’s ranking minority member, said the bill would up-end the project review process under NEPA by carving out a separate category for construction projects; by allowing a project’s sponsor to prepare an environmental document in lieu of such an analysis by a lead federal agency; and declare a federal construction permit approved if an agency does not meet deadlines.
“For more than 40 years, the approval process for projects under NEPA has saved time, money, and protected the environment,” Johnson said. “In fact, since NEPA was enacted, the US economy has not contracted. It has actually tripled in size from just over $5 trillion to more than $16 trillion.”
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