The Department of Interior and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM) announced that blanket environmental exemptions, such as the one granted to BP, will not be given until “it undertakes a comprehensive review of its National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process and the use of categorical exclusions for exploration and drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.” The government should use this time to enact smarter regulations, not unnecessary regulations that make it too costly for projects to move forward.
The NEPA process was originally set up to increase productive activities but at the same time address environmental concerns. But over the years it has evolved into a burdensome procedure and a political tool for environmental activists to stop projects built on federal land. Unfortunately, NEPA has evolved into an onerous and costly process that slows progress on critical public and private activities.
Now, most any major federal action—including the sale of offshore drilling leases—technically requires a detailed environmental impact analysis as part of the NEPA process before they are permitted. This can take years to fulfill, and the process is subject to litigation. For instance, it takes federal construction projects, such as those funded by the stimulus plan, an average of 4.4 years to complete a NEPA review and, consequently, the billions of dollars in infrastructure spending passed in the stimulus bill will not be spent until years after the economy has already recovered.
This onerous process has led to exemptions for projects that are deemed to pose little environmental risk. In fact, the Department of Interior (DOI) designed categorical exclusions for this very reason. As noted by DOI: “Categorical exclusions are actions that do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment and for which neither an environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement is required. The categorical exclusion process was established to reduce the amount of unnecessary paperwork and delay associated with NEPA compliance.”
This should be a sign to create a more efficient NEPA process, not to deny future NEPA waivers or add needless regulatory constraints. As currently applied, NEPA is too wide-reaching and onerous, which results in the need to waive its provisions. In drilling alone, 28 percent of all drilling permit applicants received similar waivers between 2006 and 2008. NEPA’s pervasive application makes it highly burdensome and difficult to follow, which drives the need for waivers. As waivers become the norm, they become easier to attain—even when perhaps they should be denied.
Typically when federal agencies say they are taking a “new approach” toward rules and regulations, it’s not a good thing, especially with the direction in which this Administration is moving. Here’s a chance for them to get something right.