Despite the environmental community’s disappointment in the very bad Senate changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process put forward by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the House provisions are even worse. One of the most important examples of this is the diverging ways in which the bills treat resource agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service if they miss a deadline.
The Senate bill would essentially require the Army Corps of Engineers to issue daily fines to the Fish and Wildlife Service or other agencies that miss a deadline to which they had previously agreed. Considering that agencies are underfunded and understaffed, the wisdom of financial penalties that will only aggravate these problems is suspect.
This is bad. But the House language is worse.
First, in the House bill, the Corps sets the deadlines for resource agencies without their consent (In the Senate bill, the resource agencies must consent to the deadline). If the resource agency misses the deadline that is set arbitrarily by the Corps of Engineers, the agency’s statutory duties – for example, those required by the Endangered Species Act -- are ignored.
There are many more detrimental provisions in the House bill that are worse than the Senate. In addition to deadlines, it improperly constrains agencies by placing severe limitations on the time for final agency decisions, it completely eliminates public comment on most Final Environmental Impact Statements, it creates unprecedented waivers of environmental review and public input after major disasters, and it dramatically limits the ability of the public to hold the government accountable by significantly reducing the statute of limitations to file a claim to 150 days.
These provisions and short-circuiting the NEPA process will not get projects built any quicker. That is because the real cause of delay is funding, not NEPA. With a backlog of $60 billion in projects and annual funding stuck under $1.5 billion, the cause of delay is money, not environmental requirements to “look before you leap.”
Clearly, the conference committee should reject these provisions or, at a minimum, do what 183 House members asked the House to do: don’t impose any of these provisions until the existing $60 billion project backlog is diminished. Until NEPA is the problem, these provisions are unnecessary and will lead bad projects to be inappropriately green lighted.