Getting government red tape out of the way

Rob Portman
By Rob Portman

Over the past several years, American Municipal Power out of Columbus has been trying to build turbines to take advantage of the abundant hydroelectric resources along the Ohio River. Not only would these projects produce cheap, renewable energy, but they could also provide thousands of good jobs for Ohio workers. But many of these projects have been delayed months and even years by an inefficient and redundant federal permitting system that acts as a barrier to job creation. Unfortunately, American Municipal Power’s story is less the exception and more the rule.

Currently, the United States ranks 17th in the world for the time it takes to get a government green-light to actually build something—a key World Bank and International Monetary Fund metric for the “ease of doing business.” Businesses seeking to undertake major capital projects in the United States often must run a gauntlet of numerous agency reviews and approvals, producing delays that can last years. It is not unheard of for a single energy project to require 35 separate federal permits, with little coordination between multiple permitting agencies.

Unfortunately, our permitting regime is characterized by complexity, redundancy, and delay. It makes new construction and investments less attractive and hinders job creation. That is why leaders from across the political spectrum and from both the public and private sectors have called for its reform. The Federal Permitting Improvement Act that I recently introduced with Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri is one of those reforms.

Our bipartisan legislation improves permitting for major projects in three basic ways. First, it requires better coordination among federal agencies and sets deadlines for permitting decisions. Rather than leaving project sponsors alone to navigate a hodgepodge of competing and often redundant agency approvals, our bill also establishes a Federal Permitting Improvement Council that must designate a “lead agency” to coordinate permitting for each project and help develop a performance schedule for required approvals. The lead agency is tasked with establishing reasonable deadlines, ensuring concurrent review by participating agencies, and coordinating with states and localities. By making a single agency responsible, there will be more accountability.

Second, our bill mandates enhanced transparency in the federal permitting process. It requires early consultation between project sponsors and permitting agencies to discuss and help resolve potential issues of concern. It also establishes an online permitting “dashboard” to track the status of approvals and help ensure agency decisions are made in a timely fashion and according to best practices. The public deserves to know which agencies are causing delay so they can be held accountable.

Finally, our bill reduces unnecessary litigation delays. It limits the current statute of limitations of six years for environmental lawsuits to 150 days after a final authorization is published in the Federal Register. This ensures that litigation doesn’t drag on for years and effectively kill projects even after all permits have been approved. And the bill clarifies that when considering a preliminary injunction in one of these lawsuits, courts must take into account the potential for significant job losses or other economic harm that will result from halting a project.

Stakeholders across the political spectrum recognize that improving our federal permitting process is essential to new capital investments and the American jobs that such investments create. Our legislation is actually based on the commonsense, bipartisan permit-streamlining reforms of the 2006 and 2012 transportation bills, as well as recommendations from the President’s Jobs Council and other recent private sector studies, including reports by both the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce. It has the support of labor unions as well, including the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

Four years after the experts declared that the last recession was over, American workers are still struggling to find good-paying jobs, and the economy isn’t growing at anywhere near the rate that it should be. As the debate in Washington continues over what we can do about the state of our economy, there are certain commonsense steps we can take right away. This bill is one.

Our economy still has a number of obstacles to overcome to fully recover from the recent recession. Let’s be sure an inefficient federal permitting regime isn’t one of those obstacles. It’s time to get government red-tape out of the way, and get American workers back on the job.

Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.