Bush: Speed up environmental reviews

Posted on Thu, Sep. 19, 2002

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - President Bush has told federal agencies to speed up environmental reviews of transportation projects that are vital to the economy.

The order drew criticism from environmentalists and Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., whose Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was holding a hearing Thursday on administration efforts to streamline environmental reviews.

"This executive order is about as clear as a rainy day," said Jeffords. "It seems to raise more questions than it answers."

Bush's order on Wednesday calls on the transportation secretary to create a list of projects for expedited review. A Cabinet-level task force would review the priority list every few months and make it easier to get the proper approvals.

Some of those reviews involve environmental impact statements, which can take years to complete. Most, however, are environmental assessments, which can be done in months.

The typical time for environmental reviews of major highway projects is 4 1/2 years, while airport runway proposals take three years, according to the White House.

Bush's order said progress on such projects "in an efficient and environmentally sound manner is essential to the well-being of the American people and a strong American economy."

The White House is conducting a review of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, which requires lengthy studies of the effects a proposed project would have on the environment and ways to minimize that impact.

Deron Lovaas, a transportation specialist with Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said Bush's order seemed to chip away at environmental safeguards. He said federal highway data shows that delays with transportation projects are usually caused by a project's complexity or lack of money, not environmental reviews.

"This is a way to circumvent NEPA, mostly by setting up this new category of high-priority projects and giving the (transportation) secretary so much latitude to determine how the process moves forward," Lovaas said.

Officials with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is overseeing the broad NEPA review, have said they hope to update a law that often means bureaucratic delays for developers.

"Any and all reviews under this executive order will fully comply with NEPA and all other environmental statutes," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Speeding up these transportation projects, he said, can ease congestion and reduce pollution at the same time.