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Tom Donohue: Permitting Process for Job-Creating Projects Should Be Swift, Safe

It took the U.S. government more than a decade to review and approve the permit application for private development firm Cape Wind to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm. By comparison, the Hoover Dam — one of the greatest engineering feats in history — was fully built in less than half the time.

These days, Cape Wind is no anomaly. There are hundreds of other critical energy and infrastructure projects that are sitting idle while the government dithers with endless reviews.

In the permitting process, there are no hard deadlines for environmental reviews and legal challenges, allowing projects to be killed, delayed or litigated indefinitely.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce conducted a sweeping study called Project No Project in 2010 and found that across the country, 351 projects — nearly half of which were for renewable energy — had been stalled or stopped. To halt progress, activist groups get zoning laws changed, oppose permits, file lawsuits and bleed projects dry of their financing. You’d think that environmentalists would be for projects that advance alternative sources of energy. Unfortunately, the build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anything (BANANAs) mentality is pervasive.

This mentality is also costly. The study found that those 351 projects together held an economic value of more than $1 trillion and the potential to create 1.9 million American jobs.

Opponents of energy and infrastructure development present a false choice. We don’t have to choose between the environment and the economic boost and jobs that new projects will drive. And we don’t have to choose between speed and safety. We can have both — but we need a permitting process that works.

To help address this challenge, bipartisan lawmakers in the Senate have put forward the Federal Permitting Improvement Act that would preserve environmental safeguards while streamlining the process. The bill would improve coordination between the various federal agencies that review and approve projects by appointing a lead agency and eliminating redundancies in the process. It would set deadlines for permitting decisions and a statute of limitations for legal challenges. And it would enhance transparency and accountability, allowing the public to track a project’s application status and see when an agency misses a deadline. A similar bipartisan bill called the RAPID Act is advancing in the House.

Commonsense reforms to the permitting process would ensure that the environment is protected while giving businesses greater certainty and confidence to invest in job-creating projects. And if we successfully tackle this challenge — if we make our system swift but safe — we can help restore our nation’s ability to do, and build, great things.

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed are his own.

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