In July, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced long-needed modernizations to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). On September 14, those changes will go into effect, making critical infrastructure projects one step closer to reality.
NEPA, signed into law in 1970, requires Federal agencies to consider environmental impacts before issuing permits for Federal projects. Farmers, whose livelihoods disappear if we fail to protect the environment, deeply understand the importance of this process.
However, the NEPA rules governing that process have not been updated since 1978, which was around the time the first personal computer was invented. You would get nothing done trying to use a 40-year-old computer, and that has also been the case with the outdated NEPA process. Projects would stall for years, mired in literally thousands of pages of regulations.
According to the Department of the Interior (DOI), it now takes the federal government an average of 4.5 years to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS), but it can also take much longer. And through those long years of review, the pages of rules that must be followed grow exponentially.
One example of the extreme burdens imposed by the current system comes from Denver, Colo. An effort to widen Interstate 70 took 15 years to get through the process and begin construction, and it came with more than 15,000 pages of rules. That’s the equivalent of roughly 50 novels, that not only need to be read, but adhered to throughout the process.
Since Fall 2017, the Bureau of Reclamation has been operating under more stringent DOI NEPA requirements than the ones recently published by the CEQ. A recent Reclamation project, the Friant-Kern Canal Middle Reach Capacity Correction Project, initiated a joint EIS/EIR in Dec. 2019, and Reclamation expects to sign the Record of Decision in Oct. 2020 for the project. The NEPA process will be completed in less than one year for a very complicated and environmentally sensitive project meeting the DOI requirements.
Water projects are almost always top-of-mind for farmers, but streamlining the NEPA rules will have a profound impact on all kinds of critical infrastructure projects benefitting all Californians – roads, bridges, mass transit, airways, waterways, affordable housing, expanding broad band to rural and poor communities, and renewable energy projects to help the environment.
We’re constantly reminded by scientists that the time to prepare for climate uncertainties is now. And much of what we must do to protect ourselves from climate change impacts involves building and repairing infrastructure – water projects to help us capture water in wet years for use in dry ones, flood control projects to counter heavy rains, mass transit to cut emissions, housing projects closer to where people work, and more.
And at a time of massive unemployment, moving these projects forward can create much-needed jobs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that for every $1 billion spent on infrastructure, 22,000 jobs are created.
The streamlined process means reviews will take no longer than 2 years and will limit the number of pages of rules that come with approval.
And streamlining the NEPA review process still maintains the integrity of critical environmental review. All of the underlying laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act remain unchanged, and the review must still allow for critical public input – projects just won’t drag on unnecessarily.
This is great news for all Californians. Speeding up critical infrastructure projects benefits farmers, cities, rural areas, minority communities, the economy and the environment.