Mike Lee seeks a ‘shot clock’ to speed federal environmental reviews

Professional basketball invented the shot clock to force teams to pick up the pace of the game. Now, Sen. Mike Lee wants a different kind of shot clock to speed up federal environmental reviews.

And if regulators run out that clock, the proposed development wins. Or the head of a deadline-missing agency may see the office budget cut automatically.

Lee on Thursday introduced the “NEPA Accountability and Enforcement Act,” with NEPA referring to the 51-year-old National Environmental Policy Act. Bills introduced this late in a two-year Congress often face slim chances of hearings or passage.

The proposed legislation follows on the heels of and mirrors rules that President Donald Trump announced in July that would set a two-year limit on full-blown environmental reviews and a one-year cap on more limited reviews.

Conservation groups view this effort as an assault on one of the nation’s bedrock environmental protection laws and they immediately vowed to challenge the rules in court as an administrative overreach that doesn’t comply with the law.

Brett Hartl, of the Center for Biological Diversity, blasted the move as perhaps “the single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years," according to the New York Times.

Lee’s legislation, if passed, would negate the argument that the executive branch doesn’t have the authority to ignore or redefine the original intent and scope of the law.

“The NEPA environmental review process has unfortunately become a weapon used by special-interest groups to throttle much needed infrastructure investments across the country,” Lee said in a statement.

“The average time to complete an Environmental Impact Statement is over 4.5 years with more than a quarter of all reviews taking more than 6 years,” Lee said. “This bill will cut through unnecessary delays and deliver better projects on time to millions of Americans that need them.”

For the proposed shot clock on the NEPA process, the bill would:

• Give federal agencies one year to issue an environmental assessment, categorical exclusion or notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS).

• If an EIS is necessary, the agency would have another year to complete it — creating an overall two years to complete the NEPA process.

• If the Office of Management and Budget determines that an agency missed a deadline, it would reduce the “account for salaries and expenses of the office of the head of the federal agency” by 0.5% for each violation with additional 0.5% reductions taking place every additional 90 days thereafter until the process is completed.

The bill creates a separate shot clock for issuing project permits once environmental reviews are completed. It would:

• Require agencies to approve or deny any permit or authorization for a project within 90 days of completion of the project’s NEPA process. If the agency fails to act within 90 days, the permit would be deemed approved.

• Agencies would provide all denials with evidence for the denial, recommendations for corrections, and an opportunity to correct the violation without having to undertake the NEPA process again.