One major factor hobbling America’s economic recovery is the inability to build anything anywhere in a timely manner. It doesn’t matter how large or small the project is. The reason: Complying with myriad regulations — and dealing with the inevitable lawsuits — isn’t worth it. Streamlining the permitting process, a small issue in the grand scheme of things, could have an outsized positive impact on the economy. How do we do it?
First, let’s limit most environmental reviews to six months. That is ample time for a thorough review of most projects but not enough time for opponents to drag out the process, thus threatening financing. Shortened review times would help create jobs, spur growth and prevent abuse of the system by the Not In My Back Yard crowd.
There is precedent for this. In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission issued a 150-day “shot clock” regulation for the construction of cell phone towers. In March, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a streamlining bill requiring that all environmental permits be processed in 150 days.
Second, if experts do not believe that a project will have any significant environmental impact, then speed it through. This is called a “categorical exclusion,” and it should be applied much more frequently.
Third, if it’s determined that an environmental review is required, and if the state did a competent review, the federal government should accept it. Why do it twice?
Fourth, if a review is necessary, the administration should require the designation of a lead agency to expedite the review. We need to appoint someone to coordinate, oversee and facilitate the process — and hold this person accountable.
Fifth, we need to dramatically improve the transparency of the review process. Today, there is almost a total absence of information on the challenges to permits for construction projects in this country. President Barack Obama should require all agencies to report the number of permits pending and for how long; challenges in the form of lawsuits, petitions or other challenges filed by private parties; and the number of jobs that would be created if the permit was issued. The public has a right to know.
That’s five simple, commonsense solutions. That’s five solutions that the administration can implement tomorrow. That’s five solutions that speed up the process without taking any rights away from private citizens to challenge a project. That’s five solutions that would draw universal support from the business community while preserving the rights of all stakeholders.
These are small steps that would have a real impact on jobs, the economy and growth. Let’s get them done!
— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.