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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Environmental protection and infrastructure development are not mutually exclusive

Infrastructure. It’s the foundations that make up way we live. From turning on your light switch to merging onto I-70 to get to work, it’s an issue that impacts all Americans.

But do our policymakers in Washington make essential infrastructure a priority?

Considering the latest grade given by the American Society of Civil Engineers for our nation’s infrastructure was a D+, I’d say there is a lot of work to be done.

Val Vigil

During his campaign trail President Donald Trump called for a $1 trillion investment into aging U.S. infrastructure.

While the package currently up for consideration in Congress is a far cry from his grand promises, there is another avenue the White House is pursuing that could help fix this mess: updating an outdated regulatory policy that is crippling the development of our nation’s infrastructure.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was enacted into law in 1970s, was the first national environmental law that required federal agencies to carefully consider the environmental impacts of new infrastructure projects before making any approval or rejection decisions.

At the outset, NEPA implemented an important process by constructing safeguards for the environment. But over the years, its procedure and enforcement have become overly burdensome and made financing in U.S. infrastructure a risky investment.

That is because since its inception NEPA hasn’t undergone any meaningful changes and obtaining approval has been a bureaucratic nightmare for any business daring to attempt to deliver modernized infrastructure projects here in Colorado and across the country.

From 2010-17, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) found the average NEPA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) took 4.5 years to complete, while each draft averaged nearly 600 pages.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

In order to spurn new investment in Colorado’s infrastructure, NEPA desperately needs reformed. Fortunately, the White House is leading this charge and in January released proposed recommendations that will simplify the NEPA process. They also will be holding a public hearing on the proposed changes in Denver on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

Changes like establishing time limits of two years for reviews and promoting the use of new technologies to help with information sharing among agencies and the public, are necessary changes that will create certainty and an efficient process that doesn’t deter companies from making the large capital investments needed to bring major projects to completion. 

Take the Northern Integrated Supply Project (NISP). Proposed in 2004, the plan would bring two new reservoirs to Northern Colorado, supplying water providers with new, reliable water supplies.

They even incorporated a number of environmental mitigation features, and – as a bonus – recreational opportunities to the area. But nearly 16 years and $1.2 billion dollars in delayed investments later, the Army Corps of Engineers is still awaiting final NEPA approval.

As with NISP, the process of environmental impact assessment often leaves greatly beneficial projects in “development hell,” or abandoned entirely. Surely, there’s a better way.

Another goal of these changes is to limit the politicization of this regulation by special interest groups who have begun using the complicated nature of NEPA to slow down projects they deem harmful.

This is only possible because the word “cumulative” impacts,” currently included in NEPA. The broad interpretation of this term allows stakeholders to bring any concern they can think of to the courts, even if they aren’t directly related to the activity of the project.

A simple term clarification could inhibit activist groups from weaponizing NEPA against projects that could benefit local, regional, and national interests, but don’t line up with their ideological agenda.

Environmental protection and infrastructure development are not mutually exclusive. The proposed changes by CEQ won’t lessen environmental considerations as critics claim, but rather ensure the process is timely and efficient and not co-opted by those looking to push their own agenda at the expense of local communities.

I’m generally opposed to Trump, but this regulatory reform is a good idea. Infrastructure development should be a bipartisan issue.

This administration’s attempt to “cut the red tape” and fast track permitting decisions will jumpstart infrastructure development projects, and generate the community investment and the family wage jobs that inevitably come with them.

Let’s get serious about modernizing America’s infrastructure and prioritize a commonsense streamlining of NEPA.

Val Vigil is a former Thornton City Council Member and State Representative where he served as Chair of the House Finance Committee. 

Rising Sun