Presidential Appointee, Not OMB Official, to Oversee Permitting in Revised Senate Bill

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By Dean Scott

May 4 — A Senate bill to jump-start environmental reviews for major energy and infrastructure projects has been revamped to give a new presidential appointee, rather than an official from the Office of Management and Budget, new authority to speed up permit approvals, according to a draft obtained by Bloomberg BNA.

The bill, slated for a May 6 vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has attracted Democratic support given long-standing complaints of project delays stemming from environmental reviews and lawsuits.

But Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have tweaked their Federal Permitting Improvement Act (S. 280) to mollify Obama administration concerns over a provision in the original bill that called for elevating the role of the White House Office of Management and Budget in coordinating federal permitting.

The amendment in the nature of a substitute to be offered at the markup would create a multi-agency Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, to be headed by an executive director appointed by the president. The substitute amendment was authored by Portman, McCaskill and the committee's chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

OMB would still have a new role in the revised streamlined permitting bill as essentially the final arbiter in settling disputes over the permitting timetables, though those timetables would be set by the presidentially appointed executive director.

New $200 Million Threshold 

The revised bill also changes the threshold for what are considered major projects and thus eligible for the streamlined permitting procedures under the legislation. The original bill defined major projects as those costing more than $25 million; the substitute amendment raises that threshold to projects costing $200 million or more.

The streamlined permitting provisions would affect projects related to conventional energy production, electricity transmission, surface transportation, aviation, ports and waterways, water resource projects, broadband, pipelines, manufacturing or any other project as determined by a majority vote of the steering council. Each federal agency or department with permitting authority—from the transportation, defense and energy departments to the Environmental Protection Agency—would provide a representative to the council.

Left largely unchanged in the bill: language cutting the time environmental groups and others would have to challenge a permit decision or environmental assessment in court. The substitute amendment and the bill as introduced would reduce the current default deadline—six years under the National Environmental Policy Act—to 150 days.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also is scheduled to mark up other bills May 6 including the Truth in Settlements Act (S. 1109) introduced April 26 by Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). It would require federal agencies to post copies of any legal settlement on their websites and disclose how much of the fines might be offset by tax deductions or credits.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com