Infrastructure takes a long time to permit in this country. Every president over the past 30-plus years has tried to streamline the federal permitting process for infrastructure.  In his first State of the Union, President Trump called for streamlining the federal permitting process so it would take “no more than two years, and perhaps, even one.”

This would be a big improvement over the time it has taken to permit some projects.  Consider, for example, the 90-mile Wyoming-Jacksons Ferry electric transmission line, which took 13 years to permit and less than three years to build, or the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line, which crossed the Delaware River along an existing right of way, that started permitting work in 2008 and did not enter into service until 2015.  Thank goodness George Washington didn’t need federal approval before crossing the Delaware.

A road, pipeline, or utility line might require approval from the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, one or more federal land management agencies like the US Forest Service, the National Park Service, or the Bureau of Land Management, and sector-specific agencies like the Department of Transportation or the Department of Energy, just to name a few.

To achieve President Trump’s streamlining, agencies will be directed to speed up  processing time and reduce layers of review without sacrificing quality outcomes. Delays caused by agency coordination or agency disputes over regulatory jurisdiction will need to be minimized.

Principles that have been suggested for speeding up federal infrastructure permitting include:

  • Accelerated reviews need to be an Administration priority in fact, not just on paper. Agencies need both support and encouragement, from the top down, to reduce the time taken for approvals.
  • Federal permitting processes already call for a “lead agency.” Accelerated permitting may benefit from not only a lead agency, but a designated point person to help navigate and cut through interagency disputes.
  • There need to be hard deadlines for reviews.

There are a number of institutional barriers to speeding up permitting.  Not only are there the laws and regulations on the books that require thorough processes that must be completed by agencies who have limited resources, but citizen groups and others often sue to block projects by challenging the sufficiency of agency compliance with those processes, which has led to significant court precedent for which permitting agencies must account.  Also, agencies may not have funding or personnel to deal quickly with all the applications that come through their doors.

President Trump’s Executive Order 13,766, Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects, E.O. 13,807, Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure, and his prime-time call on Congress for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, would not change laws, regulations or case precedent, but these actions are designed to help serve his stated goals.   These E.O.s direct the White House Counsel on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to expedite “high-priority” infrastructure projects through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process by instituting a “one federal decision” framework with robust timelines and a “performance accountability system” to track all major infrastructure projects.

A missing component is an executive branch designated point person in charge of shepherding applications through the permitting process.  The George W. Bush Administration housed an energy infrastructure ombudsman within the Department of Energy.  The persistence of a designated ombudsman made a significant impact in ensuring timely permitting, and institution of a similar role today could help effectuate President Trump’s infrastructure goals.