Quick Senate Action to Streamline Permitting Hits Snag in Homeland Security Committee

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By Dean Scott

March 3 — A Senate bill to streamline environmental permitting that had appeared poised for swift approval in a Senate committee March 4 may have hit a snag after Democrats called for a delay, pointing to concerns raised by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) hope to get Senate Democrats and the White House to support their Federal Permitting Improvement Act (S. 280), which would streamline environmental permitting requirements for major energy, infrastructure and manufacturing projects.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee's original plan days ago was to consider the bill in a batch of 11 relatively noncontroversial measures at a March 4 business meeting, where the measures would pass with little debate by voice vote.

But Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the panel's top Democrat, told Bloomberg BNA he asked committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to delay action on the permitting bill given OMB's concerns. “I think it will be pulled” from the March 4 agenda, Carper said March 3.

“It's good legislation, and the administration wants it to be enacted, but they want to make sure that some of their concerns are addressed,” according to Carper, the former chairman of the homeland security panel. The White House didn't respond to a request for details on the administration's concerns about the bill.

“My hope is that we can maybe slow this down, just a little bit, so that between now and [that] next markup we can fully address” any concerns, Carper said.

“But ultimately it will be enacted—it's good legislation,” the Democrat said.

With Republicans controlling the panel 9 to 7—and Missouri Democrat McCaskill sure to vote for her own bill—Johnson would likely prevail in a showdown over the permitting bill in committee. But delaying committee action would provide time for resolving differences that could ultimately produce dividends by bringing significant Democratic support for the measure, Carper said.

Republicans Staying on Schedule?

The bill would create a Federal Permitting Improvement Council—made up of agency representatives and led by an OMB “officer”—to better coordinate multi-agency permitting.

Both Johnson and Portman said they are pushing to keep the bill on the committee agenda, even if that means they might have to open it up to a more lengthy debate and votes on amendments.

“I hope we're going to move the bill,” Portman told Bloomberg BNA, but added he was unsure whether doing so would require only a voice vote or a comparatively lengthy markup. Johnson, the chairman, said “there are some potential amendments to be offered” but declined to provide specifics.

“I asked Senator Portman and he wants us to mark it up, so we'll do that,” the chairman said. “And it will pass. But it would be nice to get unanimous consent.”

Less Time for Opponents

The Portman-McCaskill bill, introduced Jan. 28, also would give environmental groups and other opponents less time to file a lawsuit to challenge a project's permit approval, requiring them to do so within 150 days of the decision being published in the Federal Register.

Besides McCaskill, the Senate permitting bill has one other Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), as well as the support of Sen. Angus King I-Maine). Republican co-sponsors are Johnson, the committee chairman, and Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

The Republican-led House is also moving a similar streamlined permitting bill, a measure known as the RAPID Act (H.R. 348) introduced Jan. 14 by Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law held a hearing March 2 on the measure, the Responsibly And Professionally Invigorating Development Act, and two other bills designed to roll back environmental regulatory burdens.

Lankford Optimistic About Passage 

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who is chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, said he is optimistic that some legislation streamlining permitting can pass both the House and Senate.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 requires environmental assessments of dams, roads and other projects approved or funded by federal agencies. But the process has come under fire in recent years, Lankford said, with project developers going years without knowing whether they will ultimately get approval.

“The biggest challenge right now we face is just the non-answer—we have to get to a point where we get some predictability back in the permitting process,” he said.

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