We had a great conversation with Kate Groetzinger and Aaron Weiss from Center for Western Priorities on their podcast, The Landscape. Our conversation can be found here: An Evidence-Based Look at Permitting Reform. Kate also wrote a great follow-up post on their blog, Is Energy Infrastructure Permitting Really Broken?
Our discussion ranged from the efficacy of mandatory deadlines, and whether squeezing a big project into a lower level of analysis under NEPA actually makes it go faster.
Rigorous review reduces environmental impacts. For example, a 2017 study done by Mark Capone and John Ruple in our Law and Policy Program at the Stegner Center analyzed the amount of ground disturbance associated with oil and gas drill permits depending on whether it went through a Categorical Exclusion (CE), Environmental Assessment (EA), or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). They found that the truncated review allowed by a special statutory categorical exclusion had almost four times more ground disturbance than similar projects that were reviewed in an EIS. The most likely reason for the difference is that the truncated review accomplished through a CE allowed piecemeal planning and development, which resulted in a haphazard “spider-web pattern” of well pads and access roads. The systemic thoughtfulness imposed by a more rigorous analysis decreased the amount of ground disturbance associated with each individual well site.
Mandatory deadlines could ultimately cause more delay. Previous research from our Law and Policy Center revealed that when a decision is rushed out the door and is later required to be supplemented, it causes more significant delay than if the analysis had been done well in the first place. According to research conducted by John Ruple and Kayla Race, agencies that rushed their NEPA analysis were sued at higher rates than agencies that adopted a more deliberative approach. When agencies were required to supplement a rushed and incomplete NEPA analysis, the average delays exceeded two years, which is far longer than if the analysis had been done well in the first place.
Finally, we talked about the current argument that analytical rigor should be sacrificed in order to speed up clean energy projects. This approach achieves short term gain for long term pain. “Every single day we deal with the problems of climate change. That should serve as a daily reminder that downplaying environmental consequences does not make them go away. It just makes them harder to deal with.” The permitting process is our last chance to ask, is there a way that this project could be designed a little bit better? Are there consequences that we haven’t considered? These are critical questions when we are planning for the future.