Enacting legislation will be more difficult in next year’s divided Congress, but an infrastructure bill is something that could get done. Democrats and Republicans may be able to agree on a list of popular projects to fund, and President Trump has signaled his willingness to address perceived infrastructure shortcomings. But complicating matters is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and others who are insisting that any infrastructure package contain an array of global warming provisions. Doing so could quickly turn an infrastructure bill into an anti-infrastructure bill worse than nothing at all.
Only certain types of projects need or qualify for federal funding. For others—like pipelines and ports and electric transmission lines—no tax dollars are needed. These job-creating projects would be undertaken by the private sector, so long as they can obtain approval. However, the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other laws routinely drags on for many years and costs millions of dollars. The federal bureaucracy has proven to be a formidable foe—in addition to those projects rejected outright are others for which investors give up before the lengthy process reaches its conclusion.
Enter Schumer and others who apparently want to add a whole new layer of climate-related red tape to an already excessive process. This would make approvals for just about anything other than renewable energy projects and electric vehicle charging stations even more difficult and time-consuming. Worse, it risks the categorical veto of the kinds of projects that by definition lead to greater use of fossil fuels, such as natural gas pipelines or coal export facilities. It would also give another tool of obstruction to opponents of any particular transportation project like a new highway or airport, on the grounds that it would lead to more fuel use and thus higher emissions.
Such constraints in an infrastructure bill could do more to impede projects any pork barrel provisions would facilitate them.
Rather than add to the permitting process, an infrastructure bill should include provisions to streamline it. The Trump Administration, through executive orders and other avenues, has proposed a number of useful ideas, such as requiring “one federal decision” for each project rather than redundant, uncoordinated approval requirements from multiple agencies. Unfortunately, even commonsense reforms like this have met with bureaucratic resistance.
That’s why any infrastructure bill should include permit streamlining provisions. Several bills introduced last year provide a good starting point. One bill would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from ignoring the NEPA process and blocking projects on its own, as it did twice during the Obama Administration. Another would limit states from abusing the Clean Water Act to block projects, such as Washington State’s rejection of a coal export facility that posed little water quality risk but was targeted because of the commodity it would have handled. Legal challenges against Washington State face an uncertain future at best, so a federal law is needed.
No doubt any infrastructure bill emerging from Congress in 2019 will contain a fair amount of bipartisan pork, but it should not be supported unless it also includes concrete measures to facilitate private sector infrastructure projects.