How Much Regulation Is Too Much?

Feb. 22, 2017

As many new presidential administrations do, Donald Trump’s is promising to take action on improving the country’s infrastructure. How fast it can move ahead might depend on which environmental and other regulations stay and which ones go.

This recent article from the Wall Street Journal titled “Speed Limits Await Infrastructure Spree” looks at some of the things that might delay the process—notably, what many of the people interviewed for the article consider excessive environmental regulation. It points out that infrastructure projects and spending by the two previous administrations were also hampered by lengthy environmental review; in 2015 Congress exempted some bridge replacement projects from those reviews.

“’I am totally for the national and statewide environmental laws,’” says one of the people interviewed in the article, the executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments. “Still, ‘sometimes it gets to be ridiculous.’” He is specifically referring to a 6-mile freeway extension in Los Angeles that was approved nearly 60 years ago, according to the article, and because of legal delays and environmental reviews still has not been completed.

With Scott Pruitt confirmed last week as the new EPA administrator, though, many environmental groups are expressing grave concerns about possible cutbacks in environmental regulation and oversight. As the attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued EPA several times, opposing what he viewed as federal overreach. He has argued that the states, not the federal government, should have regulatory primacy in environmental matters. One of the measures he opposed was Clean Water Rule, which was proposed by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to clarify what is and is not covered by the federal Clean Water Act. We’ve covered some aspects of the Clean Water Rule here.

The executive director of the Rainforest Action network, in a statement, called Pruitt’s confirmation “an insult to the very name of the Environmental Protection Agency”; the executive director of Voces Verdes, a network of Latino business leaders who support sustainable environmental progress, said, “We are appalled.” The environmental group Friends of the Earth declared, “Donald Trump selected Scott Pruitt to oversee the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency.” There are many more such reactions.

Here, again from the WSJ article, is the view that regulations cause excessive delay: “Reviews under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] of 1970, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and other laws can involve multiple agencies before permits are issued. Completing the process took an average of almost 10 years for major highway projects that received their final review in 2015, up from about five years in 2005.” The article presents several examples of work that has been held up because of environmental reviews and lawsuits.

The article focuses particularly on environmental impact statements, which are required under NEPA for large projects, “detailing how they would alter surroundings while offering ways to mitigate damage.” But today, it says, even on project where an environmental impact statement isn’t required, officials might spend years “working through every detail” for fear of being sued sometime in the future. There has been much discussion in the medical field about limiting or capping the dollar amount of malpractice suits, which proponents say would cut medical costs overall. Could some similar limit or protection be put in place in the environmental arena?

What’s your view? Is it possible to streamline the environmental review process without weakening the protections it provides? Would you do so across the board, or mainly for critical projects that affect public safety—failing bridges or dams, for example? Leave a comment below.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines. 

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