The National Environmental Policy Act Belongs in a Museum
Dinosaur lovers and fans of prehistoric titans like the T-Rex eagerly awaited the reopening of the Hall of Fossils in Washington, DC’s Natural History Museum this month. But when children and parents visit the 31,000 square-foot building with 700 different specimens on display, one of the country’s most prominent fossils will be missing. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is not a dinosaur in the animal or reptile sense, but this old relic has certainly earned a rightful place among the frightful remains of long ago.
NEPA is a bureaucratic force of nature that predates even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Its effect is seen when legislative calls to revitalize America’s infrastructure are treated as a joke, and with little wonder. It’s well known that even if a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill were passed, prospective projects would be held up for years due to NEPA and a host of other regulatory beasts. If America wants to get serious about energy infrastructure, political leaders first must get serious about retiring or significantly reforming NEPA.
“Instead of rebuilding our country, Washington has spent decades building a dense thicket of rules, regulations and red tape,” President Trump said in his remarks on regulatory relief. He went on, “No longer can we allow these rules and regulations to tie down our economy, chain up our prosperity, and sap our great American spirit.” And he’s right. NEPA is often referred to as the Magna Carta of environmental law. It’s a prime target for deregulation.
NEPA was originally intended as a way to inform federal agencies of environmental concerns and analyze the potential environmental impacts of prospective infrastructure or development projects. But like many regulatory policies, NEPA soon ballooned into a massive bureaucratic mess. What used to be a 12-month review process for larger projects, now takes six years, on average. Ten-page reports transformed into thousand-page long tomes. The exploratory costs exploded to the point where NEPA compliance has an annual price tag of one billion dollars in direct federal expenditures.
And it’s not just highways and bridges that are being held up. The costs associated with regulatory overreach are impacting American energy. Natural gas pipelines are facing delays being built despite the advantages they provide in terms of efficiency, safety, and their ability to deliver energy to those who need it at exactly the moment when they need it.
Last year, a cold snap in New England exposed the shortage of pipeline capacity, when a tanker of Russian gas arrived in Boston Harbor to provide life-saving energy to a freezing state. All over the country, developers have been trying to build natural gas pipelines, oftentimes winning federal approval only to be denied permits years later from states citing nonsensical regulations.
NEPA has tied up hundreds of energy and transit projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars that would improve the lives of average Americans.
Despite the temporary media attention around infrastructure with the discussion in Congress of a bipartisan, trillion-dollar infrastructure bill in the future, the reality is that regulations like NEPA will always undercut any progress. Energy and transit projects must be a priority to be planned and built within years, not decades. If the president wants to really build gleaming roads and bridges, he must start by addressing the historic relic that is NEPA.
Kenny Stein is the Director of Policy and Federal Affairs for the American Energy Alliance.