NEPA Amendments: More Sizzle Than Steak for Streamlining Energy Infrastructure?

Hey there, folks. You might remember me touching on the twists and turns of the NEPA amendments that hitched a ride with last year’s debt ceiling bill. But I’ve been pretty quiet on what that means for us in the real world. We’re talking about the future of energy infrastructure here, and the dream of a smoother permitting highway. But between you and me, I’m not holding my breath that these NEPA tweaks will be the silver bullet we’re hoping for.

NEPA’s Role in Permitting Delays: A Closer Look

First off, let’s dig into this idea that NEPA is the big bad wolf of project delays. Some sharp-eyed researchers have been crunching numbers and their findings might surprise you. Sure, crafting an environmental impact statement can be a marathon, not a sprint – we’re talking a few years, give or take. But get this: only around 90 of those hefty documents are churned out annually, compared to the tens of thousands of environmental assessments that are more like a brisk walk in the park.

And even when these impact statements seem to drag on, it’s not a given that they’re the ones holding up the show. It could be that they’re just keeping pace with the rest of the permitting band. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to rush through an impact statement only to twiddle our thumbs waiting for other parts to catch up. Plus, new data might pop up, meaning we’d have to backtrack and update – talk about a time suck.

Streamlining Efforts: Been There, Done That?

Next up, let’s talk about streamlining. Many – probably most – impact statements have already been dancing to the tune of earlier NEPA laws that trimmed the fat for a bunch of projects, including a slew of energy and transportation ones. Some of these old-school laws are even tougher than the new NEPA amendments. And for those projects not covered by the old laws, White House regs step in with a similar playbook. So for a lot of projects, the new rules are just more of the same old song.

Symbolic Gestures and Real-World Impacts

Then there’s the symbolic stuff. The amendments set page limits tighter than a drum, but they left a loophole for appendices. And let’s be real – no agency in their right mind is going to skip details that could land them in hot legal water. Expecting a massive pipeline’s environmental review to fit into a novella? That’s a pipe dream. And those strict deadlines? Agencies tend to look at those the way a Roman looks at speed limits – more like suggestions. Plus, if you end up in court, you might as well settle in for the long haul.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the NEPA amendments might free up some resources for the big-ticket projects. It’s no secret that resource shortages are the real bottleneck in the NEPA process. The amendments aim to slash the number of environmental assessments for the small fry projects and let project applicants take a stab at the initial drafts, which could save some resources (though it does smell a bit like a conflict of interest). They’re also giving the green light for more use of programmatic impact statements, which is like a group discount for dealing with common issues across multiple projects. Don’t expect fireworks, but these tweaks could grease the wheels a tad.

The Cost of Modest Improvements: A Tangled Web of Interpretation

So what’s the trade-off for these modest process tweaks? A big, messy pile of interpretation headaches, thanks to some less-than-stellar drafting of the amendments. Doesn’t sound like a great deal to me. But let’s put it in perspective: the alternative Republican demands during the debt ceiling standoff were to toss out the Inflation Reduction Act and clip the wings of agencies’ regulatory power. In that light, the NEPA amendments start to look like the lesser of two evils.

At the end of the day, we’re left wondering if these amendments are more about putting on a show than actually revolutionizing the way we get energy projects off the ground. It’s a classic case of wait-and-see, but I’ll be here to walk you through every step of the way. Stay tuned, folks.

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