We sure don’t build stuff like we used to.
In the 1930s Montana was able to build the massive Fort Peck dam in under a decade. A lot has changed in 90 years.
Now, simply getting a federal permit for a hydroelectric dam can take 7 years. Overall, we see federal environmental permits for energy, mining, transportation and infrastructure projects take an average of 4 1/2 years to be approved.
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The delays don’t end once an environmental permit is obtained. As Montanans recently saw in Laurel, a permit for a new power plant might be outright revoked after construction starts thanks to a questionable decision from a retiring judge in response to litigation from radical environmentalist groups.
Our nation’s permitting and environmental review process is fundamentally broken. State and federal permit reform is needed to allow entrepreneurs and innovators to overcome the challenges of the present and build an abundant future.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was created in 1970 as a well-intentioned effort to ensure federal agencies were considering environmental impacts when making decisions. Under NEPA, major government actions – like issuing a permit – require a detailed statement evaluating environmental impacts beforehand. Unfortunately, producing “detailed statements” over time has morphed into a bureaucratic nightmare.
Montana’s own Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) was initially nearly identical to NEPA. Thankfully, the Legislature has tried to mitigate some of the worst aspects of NEPA with reforms at the state level, but more can and should be done.
Excessive paperwork and lengthy delays under the environmental permitting process can add millions to the cost of important projects like new power plants, highways or transmission lines. The uncertainty of litigation also makes projects more expensive, with the DOJ noting that NEPA receives the most litigation of any environmental law. Of course, these extra costs get pushed to you and I as the end consumers.
New PricewaterhouseCoopers data notes the oil and natural gas industry alone support more than 56,000 jobs and contribute more than $7.4 billion to Montana’s economy, so hamstringing this important sector with red tape also crushes the state’s economic potential.
Ironically, when permitting and procedural litigation bog down energy infrastructure projects, it harms our ability to take on big environmental challenges. A vast majority of planned and in-progress energy projects needing a permit under NEPA are for either renewable wind and solar or for new transmission lines essential to expanding our grid to support electrification – delaying and even jeopardizing projects that most would recognize as ultimately be good for the environment.
In fact, the natural gas plant in Laurel that recently had its environmental permit nixed is actually a key part of Northwestern Energy’s strategy to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, aiding the utility’s transition to renewables by offsetting the intermittency of new wind and solar energy sources in their generation portfolio.
Readers should consider which is better for the climate: forcing critical projects through years of red tape and endless litigation, or building the infrastructure necessary for a clean and abundant energy future as fast as we possibly can?
Thankfully, our leaders are recognizing the need for permit reform. The 2023 Legislature delivered substantial reforms to MEPA intended to address frivolous litigation. In March, both of Montana’s Congressmen helped pass the Lower Energy Costs Act to overhaul federal permitting. And Senator Steve Daines recently helped introduce the Spur Permitting of Underdeveloped Resources (SPUR) Act to streamline permitting for critical energy infrastructure.