EPA Aims to Accelerate Environmental Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency's goal is to make all permit decisions — approval or disapproval — in six months. (Eric Miller/Transport Topics)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped up its efforts to mitigate delays in the permitting process for environmental infrastructure projects, Administrator Andrew Wheeler said.

“Infrastructure projects are often critical to environmental protection,” Wheeler told attendees May 14 during the first day of a two-day P3 Policy and Delivery Summit during Infrastructure Week here. “Delays in permitting mean delays in addressing environmental harms.”

Wheeler was among an array of speakers emphasizing a potential greater need for public-private partnership investment and expertise as Congress mulls how to fund a $2 trillion infrastructure bill aimed at repairing and expanding the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.

“Permitting reform is an issue that should transcend party or ideology,” Wheeler told attendees at the summit. “By permitting reform, I don’t mean permitting approval. I mean timely, efficient and consistent decisions. This is important for much more than economic development.”

Last month, Wheeler traveled to Miami to announce a new P3 project in which EPA issued a $100 million loan to help upgrade Miami’s wastewater management system. The EPA loan and other public and private investment will enable the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department to construct deep injection wells as treatment plants that will redirect treated wastewater away from ocean outfalls to help keep the city’s oceans healthy and clean.



“The longer that it takes to complete these types of projects, the longer we go without addressing environment harms,” Wheeler said.

He said that when former Administrator Scott Pruitt first took the helm of EPA, he discovered that the agency was not tracking how long the environmental review process was taking.

“We did not know how long permitting processes took from start to finish,” Wheeler said. “You can’t improve a process if you don’t measure it.”

He added, “Because we are now tracking the process, we’re able to fix problems on a monthly basis, rather than annually. We’ve already seen dramatic improvements.

We did not know how long permitting processes took from start to finish. You can't improve a process if you don't measure it.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler

“Between June and November of last year, we reduced the backlog of new permit applications older than six months by 34%. Our ultimate goal is to make all permit decisions, up or down, in six months.”

Wheeler said the Trump administration has advanced the so-called FAST-41 program that focuses on reducing and eliminating unnecessary and costly delays that have characterized environmental reviews and authorizations in the past. In some cases, applicants have waited for years before getting a federal decision due to protracted environmental review and authorization processes, EPA said.

The FAST-41 program’s goal is to ensure greater transparency, accountability and efficiency across the federal government by implementing a major transformation in the way environmental reviews and authorizations are conducted by all permitting agencies. The program features a FAST-41 permitting dashboard, an online tool for federal agencies, project developers and interested members of the public to track the federal government’s environmental review and authorization processes for large or complex infrastructure projects. The dashboard is part of a governmentwide effort to improve coordination, transparency and accountability, according to EPA.

EPA issues less than 5% of the total permits issued nationwide, according to Wheeler.

“In order to make a real impact, it’s important that we also look at permits issued by delegated states,” he said. “States implement the vast majority of our environmental permitting programs.”

“I’m not suggesting that we approve all permits within a set amount of time, but I am suggesting that we make a decision, yes or no, within a set amount of time,” Wheeler said. “This will provide states, tribes and the private sector the certainty they need to invest in major infrastructure projects — projects that are good for the environment and the economy.

“This is especially important for small businesses, many of which are family-owned and operated. Oftentimes, these businesses don’t have the resources or personnel needed to navigate overly complex regulations or burdensome requirements.”