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America’s National Climate Strategy Starts with NEPA

The transition to a low-carbon economy will require a national climate strategy and reshaping of our national infrastructure at a scale and pace that is unprecedented in the modern era.

Science and politics should converge at a 2050 target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. To do so will demand massive investments to build out, replace, modernize, and decarbonize energy production, manufacturing facilities, transmission wires, pipelines, and a myriad of other infrastructure. A first step in this enormous undertaking will be harmonizing the regulations that guide these projects, beginning with the administration’s review of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Accept for one moment America finds the political will, money, and technology to ambitiously decarbonize. The unavoidable challenge is one of speed. We must reconcile the imperative for a massive clean energy transition with an inefficient environmental review and permitting process—one regularly used to gin up public opposition, lay down bureaucratic roadblocks, and litigate everything from bike lanes to powerlines. These same hurdles await first-of-a-kind facilities that sequester carbon underground, store massive amounts of clean power or employ advanced nuclear technologies.

NEPA, our nation’s preeminent environmental law, has been a top target for those seeking to speed up project delivery. Since becoming law in 1970, NEPA has required that federal agencies analyze environmental impacts and involve the public before they act in ways that will significantly affect the human environment.

Yet the law does not contemplate how best to resolve differences between agencies (and levels of government) acting out their own statutory and potentially conflicting missions—e.g., protect sensitive wetlands vs building a highway. Nor is it the right place to drive the broader climate policy agenda.

Take for example a project on the Bayonne Bridge between New York and New Jersey to elevate its bridge deck to accommodate larger ships. The project’s NEPA review generated more than 5,000 pages of federally mandated archaeological, traffic, fish habitat, soil, pollution, and economic reports, costing over $2 million to produce. In total, 47 permits were required from 19 federal, state, and local agencies—all to raise an existing bridge. The project has taken a decade from conception to completion.

The Trump administration will soon release a draft rule to fix longstanding efficiency problems with environmental reviews and project permitting. Those committed to researching, investing in, and building the infrastructure needed to make our climate goals a reality should see it as an opportunity. If done right, the rule could go a long way toward improving a process that too often increases the length and costs of project development without improving environmental outcomes.

The total investment to decarbonize the U.S. electric grid alone will cost trillions of dollars, to say nothing of our infrastructure or industry challenges.  It will require hundreds, if not thousands, of individual projects – each currently requiring a years-long, multi-stage environmental review. Time that we do not have.

The environmental review and permitting process is necessary and important. It gives affected stakeholders and underrepresented voices a meaningful opportunity to engage and share concerns about projects. It requires policymakers to holistically consider the environmental impacts of their decisions. But we have a fundamental problem when the process becomes unnecessarily lengthy and costly, even for projects with clear environmental benefit, such as siting of new, low carbon energy technologies, including massive scale renewables. These impediments must be fixed if we are to successfully accelerate decarbonization projects and investments.

Both political parties have long understood NEPA, the magna carta of our nation’s environmental laws, to be sacrosanct. There has been bipartisan support previously for incremental and common-sense process improvements, with such measures folded into transportation reauthorization bills passed in 1998, 2005, 2012, and 2015. Similarly, Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump all launched initiatives to get projects built more efficiently and at less cost in what has become something of a bipartisan tradition.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality should commit to build on these efforts. It will be a noteworthy accomplishment if CEQ can institutionalize process reforms that empower key decision-makers to resolve interagency and intragovernmental disputes, expand transparency measures like the online Permitting Dashboard, make simultaneous agency reviews the norm, and provide for more predictable and coordinated schedules. NEPA reform should be seen as part of a bold step forward and not as a means for weakening environmental or climate safeguards.

Everyone that appreciates the essential steps that must be taken to transition to a low carbon economy should champion any effort to review NEPA regulations and seek to make the process work better.

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