Anyone who has tried to obtain the permits and approvals required for large infrastructure projects knows how difficult, time-consuming and frustrating that process can be. Attempting to coordinate the numerous federal and state agencies involved in this effort is like herding cats. Project proponents and Congress routinely complain about delays, and court challenges to agency approvals only serves to slow things down even more.
So what can be done? There have been previous attempts to remedy the problem. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, for example, gave FERC authority to coordinate federal environmental reviews and placed enforceable deadlines (to the extent not otherwise set by law) on federal agencies (or state agencies acting under federal authority) to issue permits relying on the administrative record and environmental review compiled by FERC. That Act also provided FERC with some unique authorities to issue siting of electric transmission lines in “national interest electric transmission corridors.”
These efforts, however, have not been entirely successful. Delays and lengthy approvals are more the norm than the exception. The President has proposed what he hopes is a new fix. On May 17, he issued a Presidential Memorandum, “Modernizing Federal Infrastructure Review and Permitting Regulations, Policies and Procedures,” with the goal of reducing the ”time required by the Federal Government to make decisions in the review and permitting of infrastructure projects.” The document requires an inter-agency group to identify and prioritize ways to improve regulations, policies and procedures and then, based on that analysis, prepare a plan for modernizing Federal review and permitting of infrastructure projects. The plan is to be completed and issued by September 14, 2013 and is to include proposed actions to institutionalize “best practices” by revising regulations and policies to create “process efficiencies” and improved outcomes. The memo covers most types of major infrastructure projects, including transportation projects, energy projects, pipelines and water resource projects.
This all sounds great. Government should always be looking at ways to reduce burdens and increase efficiencies while improving outcomes. It remains to be seen whether the President’s memo actually improves our collective cat-herding skills or is simply another in a long line of good ideas heading nowhere.