It took about 13 months and 15 days to construct the Empire State Building in New York City, which opened in 1931 on 34th street in midtown Manhattan. At 1,250 feet and 102 stories, it was the tallest building in the world until 1970, when the Twin Towers in downtown eclipsed it.
It took 11 years to construct the Freedom Tower, which opened 2014 adjacent to where the Twin Towers once stood. At 1,300 feet, this skyscraper took nearly ten times longer to construct.
This comparison and countless other examples are the key reason that President Trump last week signed an executive order for federal agencies to shorten environmental reviews for construction of highways, mines, pipelines and other projects on federal lands as the nation continues to suffer economically during the Covid-19 emergency. Modern day construction of infrastructure takes too long and becomes too expensive due, at least in part, to mandated, multi-layered bureaucratic reviews.
Laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act require agencies to conduct multi-step, detailed reviews the potential impact of construction projects on the environment. The executive order is a continuation of efforts by the president going back three years to streamline these regulatory reviews in order to speed up projects, lower their cost and strengthen the economy.
NEPA has been on the books since 1970. Such laws are necessary and warranted, yet many anti-development and Green groups have historically used them not to ensure adequate reviews and safeguards, but to stop human progress and modernization. Litigation also reaps a financial bonanza for trial lawyers, who also are politically influential.
The Interstate Highway System, built in the 1950’s, is one of the greatest public work achievements in history, a crown jewel of President Eisenhower’s administration. It is fully embraced by millions of Americans who drive on it, and integral to the economy. Imagine trying to build that system today? It is unimaginable, with the multitude of agencies and laws involved.
The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) in 2009, which passed to help the nation recover from the Great Recession, provides a salient modern contrast. This $787 billion undertaking (which was big money at the time) was sold as an infrastructure bill that would bring “shovel-ready projects” to completion and create jobs. It did little, absent a small portion that was used for highway and bridge repair. President Obama later acknowledged that “’shovel-ready’ was not as shovel-ready as we expected.”
President Trump’s latest executive order does not repeal NEPA or any other statute. It cannot. Rather, it is about administering such laws in a more balanced and efficient manner, which is a discussion worth having, especially now. The Trump administration has been pushing the debate over the costs and benefits of environmental laws and processes affecting construction and job creation, especially now as the nation grapples with economic collapse from the pandemic with millions of Americans out of work.
Sadly, millions of unemployed Americans will have no sympathy from extremist Green groups and politicians who, right on key, assume the worst from streamlining environmental regulations.
A comment by Christy Goldfuss of the Center for American Progress was a revealing example. Goldfuss headed President Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality, and said the Trump administration is “trying to divert attention away (sic) from the crisis of racial injustice happening around the country by giving agency leads the excuse to ram through polluting projects that will prop up the dying fossil fuel industry while destroying the very same communities that are dying at higher rates from Covid-19 and police violence as well.”
Ms. Goldfuss’ attempt to conflate streamlining of environmental reviews with racial politics is a vile non-sequitur designed to exacerbate division. It’s also an example of the impossibility of having an honest debate about anything in this country.
Notice further her mention of “prop[ing] up the dying fossil fuel industry.” There’s the real rub for green activists. Killing fossil fuels is the key ingredient to transforming America in ways that will make us poorer and more dependent on the government for sustenance, which ultimately empowers people influencing and running the government.
The Trump administration’s efforts to streamline bureaucratic oversight and litigation to construct and repair infrastructure is not zero-sum anti-environment, despite the hysteria from the usual suspects. We need not return to the days when a skyscraper or major bridge crossing could be built in a year; but when it takes up to a decade and longer, then the environmental process needs fixing to ensure a sensible, cost-effective balance.