Trump calls for streamlined environmental reviews

  • President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/17/2017 7:16:15 PM

Though overshadowed by his statements about last weekend’s white supremacist rally over the weekend, President Donald Trump announced earlier this week an executive order to streamline environmental reviews and permits for major infrastructure projects, establishing a two-year goal for such processes.

Saying the status quo is holding down economic and job growth, Trump said the changes are desperately needed, noting a Government Accountability Office report that said it takes seven years, on average, for a complex highway project to go through the environmental review process, and a separate study asserting a single agency review can take up to five years.

“Today, it can take as long as a decade and much more than that – many, many stories where it takes 20 and 25 years just to get approvals to start construction of a fairly routine highway,” he said during a press conference at Trump Tower in New York City. “One agency alone can stall a project for many, many years, and even decades. Not only does this cost our economy billions of dollars, but it also denies our citizens the safe and modern infrastructure they deserve. This over-regulated permitting process is a massive self-inflicted wound on our country — it’s disgraceful — denying our people much-needed investments in their community.”

His order requires federal agencies to track costs of environmental review and permitting processes and implements a “one federal decision” process under which one federal agency will lead reviews and others will sign a joint record of decision, after which federal permits will be issued 90 days later.

Under his plan, state and local governments will be able to meet infrastructure challenges and the federal government will “get out of the way,” according to the White House.

Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., reacted in a written statement Wednesday: “Americans know we need strong investments in infrastructure, but this is nothing but a blatant giveaway by President Trump to his wealthy developer friends. With his long history of climate change denial, it comes as no surprise that President Trump is pushing a policy that puts big business profits ahead of protecting the clean air and water our communities rely on. We can move forward with the critical infrastructure projects that will help to grow our economy, but abandoning the safeguards that keep our families safe is the wrong approach.”

Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., also issued a statement: “I have been broadly supportive of a new bipartisan infrastructure initiative because our nation’s transportation, energy, health and broadband systems could use significant federal investment.

“What the administration has not provided members of Congress is a mechanism with how they intend to pay for the $1 trillion proposal. The Executive Order President Trump signed (Tuesday) also has implications on the environment and flood mitigation that clearly need to be addressed by Congress. Groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and Taxpayers for Common Sense are expressing their concerns about the ramifications of these permitting changes. As a result, I believe the American people deserve to have their voices heard in this process before any new repeals take effect.”

According to the White House website, Trump’s infrastructure initiative would expedite new pipeline approval and production, and includes $200 billion in his budget as part of a $1 trillion investment in rebuilding “crippled bridges, roads and waterways.”

It adds: “Government will get out of the way to allow state and local governments to succeed at meeting their unique challenges.”

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington said, “I see the potential for big problems with what he’s proposing,” although he acknowledged, “He hasn’t yet been very specific about what he’s proposing.”

Kulik noted that delays in projects that he’s seen have been a function of inadequate funding more than of excessive review.

“Perhaps there are cases where environmental reviews have taken too long, and maybe there’s room for improvement,” he said. “But his philosophical approach is the least amount of environmental review, the better. I can see where that would be a huge mistake and could lead to huge problems. … I’m skeptical about how much of this stuff can be streamlined, but I’m willing to take a look at it.”

Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy said, “I think five to seven years for environmental review is possible for very complex projects, because design and engineering takes a long time for those projects, and environmental review is happening as the design and engineering gets more and more refined.”

She said it’s “absolutely” possible that the process can be streamlined, but there needs enough time to “thoroughly understand environmental impacts, land-use impacts, public health and safety impacts.”

Dunlavy stressed, “You can’t streamline and make more efficiencies, and cut the environmental agencies that would be doing the analysis. It’s illogical to think you can make it quicker when there’s no one to do the analysis.

“It’s pretty short-term thinking to say because we need this project today, we shouldn’t consider the long-term impacts that could occur tomorrow,” said Dunlavy. “Isn’t it our responsibility to ensure that we aren’t doing anything harmful that will impact the future negatively? For really complex projects, you want it to take years.”

A critical piece, she said, is leaving state and local review in tact.

“Is there an option for Massachusetts, and Franklin County and for the municipalities of Franklin County to say, if the federal government isn’t going to take on this level of analysis and this responsibility, can we take on that responsibility, and will we have the legal right to do that? That’s a huge question,” Dunlavy said.

Jerry Lund, Franklin Regional Planning Board chairman, agreed, adding “There’s no hard economic data that I know of that shows that invariably regulation plays a delaying role. Regulation is all about having the people’s input through government into a project. If you cut regulation to pieces, you’re essentially denying people a chance to review a project. That’s really what’s going on here.

Although the executive order only pertains to infrastructure projects at this time, Lund said, “It’s all part of a larger plan, which is about revising government to their specifications, and they are the corporation interests. … Regulators are the arm through government for people to have input. How else do people have input? It’s the way of undermining the democratic process, as far as I’m concerned.”

(State House News Service contributed to this report.)

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