Since 2011, the Administration – led by the White House Office of Management & Budget, Council on Environmental Quality, and the Department of Transportation – has undertaken an ambitious effort to modernize the Federal government’s role in the environmental review and permitting process. In August 2011, the President issued a memorandum instructing Federal agencies to prioritize and expedite the environmental review and permitting process for a set of infrastructure projects with significant potential for job creation, and to improve the accountability, transparency, and efficiency of those processes. The Federal Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard was established to support these objectives. A March 2012 Executive Order expanded use of the Dashboard to a broader set of nationally- or regionally-significant projects, over half of which have completed the Federal environmental review and permitting process, some years ahead of schedule.
The Implementation Plan
Building off of these initial efforts, in May 2014, the Steering Committee on Federal Infrastructure Permitting and Review Process Improvement published the Implementation Plan for the Presidential Memorandum on Modernizing Infrastructure Permitting (the “Implementation Plan”), which identified four strategies and 15 reforms, with 96 near-term and long-term milestones, to accelerate and reform environmental permitting and review processes government-wide. A key strategy in the Implementation Plan sought to drive continued improvement by expanding use of the Dashboard to facilitate enhanced interagency coordination and provide public transparency for any infrastructure project that might experience a lengthy Federal environmental permit and review given its size, complexity, and significance.
“Infrastructure Permitting Modernization” was also included among the 15 Cross-Agency Priority Goals announced in the 2015 Budget. Established by the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010, these Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goals are a tool used by leadership to accelerate progress on a limited number of Presidential priority areas where implementation requires active collaboration between multiple agencies. The Infrastructure Permitting Modernization priority goal is to “[m]odernize the Federal permitting and review process for major infrastructure projects to reduce uncertainty for project applicants, reduce the aggregate time it takes to conduct reviews and make permitting decisions by half, and produce measurably better environmental and community outcomes.” The goal is led by Dave Mader, Acting Deputy Director for Management of OMB; Christina Goldfuss, Managing Director, Council on Environmental Quality; and Victor Mendez, Deputy Secretary of Transportation. Quarterly progress updates are available at Performance.gov.
The FAST Act
In December 2015, Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. Among FAST Act provisions related to improving environmental review and permitting, Title 41 of the FAST Act (“FAST-41”) creates a new entity – the Federal Permitting Improvement Council – to oversee the cross-agency Federal permitting and review process, composed of agency Deputy Secretary-level members and chaired by an Executive Director appointed by the President. It also expands the scope of projects for which reviews will be accelerated by adding new agencies (FERC and NRC) and infrastructure sectors (conventional energy generation and manufacturing), and establishes new procedures that standardize interagency consultation and coordination practices. Importantly for the future of the permitting modernization effort, FAST-41 creates a new authority for centralizing the collection of fees, which will allow the Council to direct resources to friction points and critical functions within the interagency review process. It also codifies into law many of the advances made under executive authority, including the use of the Permitting Dashboard to track project review timelines, thus ensuring that they will become standard practice well into the future. Other FAST Act provisions addressing the project delivery process and tracking environmental review and permitting milestones, are set out in Title I and Title IX.