U.S. House Republicans said opponents of energy projects and other infrastructure development have used federal rules for environmental reviews to make it difficult and expensive to implement projects that would benefit the economy.
The House Committee on Natural Resources called a Nov. 29 oversight hearing to look at ways to update the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, to give project developers and other businesses more certainty by reducing costs, delays and litigation.
Republican members said they were considering legislative fixes. Some said they were inspired by President Donald Trump's executive order rescinding the Obama administration's guidance on climate change issued by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a body put in place by a provision of NEPA.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., in white shirt in background, questions a panel of witnesses that includes Dinah Bear, former general counsel for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
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Many Republican members used the word "hijacked" at the hearing to describe how project opponents have used written comments and public meetings required by NEPA to drag out the environmental review process for major infrastructure projects. NEPA is the foundation for federal and state environmental reviews of many different types of activities, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's reviews of proposed natural gas pipelines, LNG export terminals and hydropower plants. The act requires analysis of a broad range of potential impacts, consideration of alternatives to the proposed project and public input at different stages of the review process.
"Delays and duplication of environmental reviews have driven up the cost of a host of critical infrastructure and job-producing projects, which in turn drives up the cost of everything from milk to lumber to energy production," committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in his opening statement.
"Ultimately, taxpayers are paying more for federal bureaucracy, gridlock and lawyers as limited resources for productive environmental improvements take a back seat to paperwork and court settlements," Bishop said. "This is not what was envisioned by Congress" when it enacted NEPA in 1969, he said.
Democrats on the committee accused the majority of taking another swipe at important environmental protections in NEPA. "Time and again, we have debunked Republican myths about NEPA causing excessive delays, frivolous lawsuits and damage to our economy," said ranking member Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. "Based on the testimony provided by majority witnesses in advance of today's hearing, we will need to continue refuting false claims."
Democrats said NEPA provides much-needed public input, environmental impact analysis and consideration of alternative plans. Their witness on the panel, Dinah Bear, a former general counsel for the White House Council on Environmental Quality who is still active in environmental law, said inefficiencies in the NEPA review process could be fixed by providing the council and the agencies involved in such reviews with enough resources and trained personnel.
One of the majority witnesses at the hearing was Mike Bridges, representing the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council. Bridges said the process has turned into a circus, with "people dressed as their favorite endangered species" and hundreds of people "literally bused in from other states" to protest during the five years of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review of the Millennium Bulk Terminals-Longview coal export project in Longview, Wash.