"There are too many cooks in the kitchen. Someone lets [the permit application] sit on their desk and forgets it, " said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

"There are too many cooks in the kitchen. Someone lets [the permit application] sit on their desk and forgets it, " said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Flickr user Senator Claire McCaskill

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Senators: Feds ‘Feel No Sense of Urgency’ About Granting Permits for Job-Creating Projects

Portman and McCaskill introduce “tripartisan” bill to streamline the permitting process.

Two senators joined with construction and manufacturing industry leaders on Wednesday to introduce a bipartisan bill to streamline the cumbersome federal permitting process, taking a jab at agency officials who “neglect” long-pending projects and “feel no sense of urgency.”

The Federal Permitting Improvement Act “is modeled on the commonsense, bipartisan permit-streamlining reforms of the 2006 and 2012 transportation bills and recommendations from the President’s Jobs Council, as well as other studies,” Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters at the Capitol Visitors Center.

“Under the current U.S. system, many major job-creating projects get bogged down in a lengthy approval process and never see the light of day,” Portman said. “By streamlining the federal permitting process, our bill will help promote expansion, economic growth and the hiring of American workers right here at home.”

Speaking alongside representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, North America's Building Trades Unions and the National Association of Manufacturers, McCaskill said it was “a big deal to have the trade groups here. We’ve done the hard work to reach consensus. The current system is a morass of unaccountability, so we need to eliminate the duplication and hassle. Every tick-tock of the clock costs taxpayers.”

The bill would improve coordination of permit granting in capital projects with price tags of at least $25 million in conventional energy production, electricity transmission, surface transportation, aviation, ports and waterways, water resources, broadband, pipelines and manufacturing. It would create a task force run by the Office of Management and Budget, which would select a lead agency to coordinate deadlines.

It would enhance transparency by requiring agencies to post timelines online, and it would curb litigation by reducing the statute of limitations under the National Environmental Policy Act from six years to 150 days after notice of the project is published in the Federal Register. It would also permit courts to consider and agencies to consult earlier with industry and coordinate with states and localities.

In blasting the current permitting process, the senators noted that the United States ranks 41st in World Bank rankings for dealing with construction permits—trade competitor Germany ranks eighth and South Korea, 12th, Portman noted.

“There are 35 different U.S. agencies and rules involved, requiring lot of time and compliance that brings redundancy, complexity and delays,” he added, citing an engineer for an Ohio coal company who showed him two thick notebooks of permitting documents, compared with a mere 11 pages the engineer recalled from decades ago.

Asked why agencies move permits so slowly, McCaskill said, “There are too many cooks in the kitchen. Someone lets it sit on their desk and forgets it, which is why we need to streamline and make things transparent,” she said. “A lot of it is just neglect, no sense of urgency.”

Added Portman, “A lot of people in agencies don’t feel accountable because it’s not their project.”

Both senators denied that shortening the statutory litigation period under NEPA will harm environmental or safety measures. “That six years has turned has into a tool for small groups for whatever reason to litigate when they know within 150 days if they have objections,” McCaskill said. “It’s a recipe for costing time and jobs.”

Portman added that Europe greenlights construction projects faster under its own litigation and regulatory system.

Both senators expressed optimism that the bill would reach the president’s desk, in part because it builds on President Obama’s 2012 executive order on reforming permitting. The bill is co-sponsored by what Portman called a “tripartisan” group of lawmakers: Sens. Angus King, I-Maine; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The permitting bill is also a “precursor,” McCaskill said, to a coming bipartisan effort to bring resources to U.S. infrastructure such as roads, bridges and the electric grid, “which are getting old, worn out and dangerous. We have to get back to competing with our allies, otherwise we will pay the price.”

Environmental groups are not likely to welcome the bill. Government Accountability Office studies "have shown NEPA is not the problem," Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Government Executive. He said the Chamber of Commerce's website listing 350 delayed projects "shows that federal permits were not the cause of the problem, but instead local opposition, lack of financing [and] state governmental objections were the primary causes. They are playing on the myth and the outliers to undercut current federal laws, such as NEPA, which is often the only statute, federal or otherwise, that gives the public an opportunity to comment on projects that affect their community and their environment."