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Tom Donohue: Permitting Delays Cost Jobs and Growth

We need a permitting process that’s predictable, fair, timely and transparent

What’s one of the fastest ways to create jobs for the 20 million Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or who have given up looking? Drive economic growth. And what’s one of the surest ways to hold that growth back? Stall job-creating projects with needless delays.

With unemployment chronically high and our economic recovery limping along, you’d think our leaders would tear down every possible barrier to growth and jobs. Yet across the country, key projects are being held up by shortsighted government policies, a legal system run amok, extreme environmentalists, “not in my backyard” activism and those who want to “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”

From 1998 to 2006, the time it took to prepare an environmental impact statement for an energy or infrastructure project ranged from 51 days to 18.4 years with an average span of 3.4 years. With each passing year, the average time to complete an environmental review has increased by 37 days.

These delays are costly. When bureaucrats dither with applications, and when ideology-driven obstructionists jam up the works, projects stop, workers get laid off and economic activity halts.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Project No Project study, there are more than 350 stalled construction projects nationwide that could — if we get them online — infuse $1.1 trillion into our economy in the short term and create 1.9 million jobs annually.

President Barack Obama announced in January that he would sign an executive order to help alleviate permitting delays. In March, he took a small step by calling on agencies to adopt best permitting practices and find ways to track projects. But we were hoping for a serious executive order to establish a lead agency that would manage the permitting process within specific timelines so projects can hurry up and move into the construction phase.

Until we have a permitting process that’s fundamentally predictable, fair, timely and transparent, the job-crushing delays will persist. To get to the heart of the matter, the Chamber of Commerce is supporting the RAPID Act, a new piece of legislation to streamline permitting. The bill would designate one agency to lead on processing permits and approvals. It would encourage agencies to get involved early in the process. Reviews by state regulatory agencies would be accepted to avoid redundancy. And environmental impact statements and environmental assessments — two distinct steps in the review process — would be consolidated to eliminate duplicative work.

We have a choice. We can continue shooting ourselves in the foot with a needlessly cumbersome permitting process. Or we can streamline it and speed up economic growth and job creation. This isn’t a tough call.

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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