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More talk necessary on NEPA

Americans frown on excessive regulations that impose years-long — even decades-long — delays in starting and completing badly needed infrastructure-improvement projects.

According to a Jan. 10 Wall Street Journal report, business groups say lengthy mandatory reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, enacted in 1970, are partly responsible for the nearly $1 trillion backlog of transportation projects alone.

Meanwhile, building trades unions and industrial interests criticize NEPA for, in their view, having become a tool of obstruction by environmental groups.

President Donald Trump has proposed the first comprehensive NEPA overhaul in more than four decades, a key provision being, for the first time, setting of limits for completion of environmental reviews that now sometimes take a decade or longer to complete.

Under the president’s plan, full environmental impact statements would have to be completed within two years, while environmental assessments characterized as less comprehensive would carry a one-year completion deadline.

According to the Journal report, Trump wants to limit the scope of what agencies have to consider before issuing decisions on whether or not projects receive a thumbs-up. The president has made the reasonable point that delays often occur due to federal duplication of local and state efforts.

There is good cause to be fearful, though, that the president might be going too far regarding the new rules that he wants implemented. Like it or not, the serious issue of climate change cannot be dismissed, and the Trump administration continues to draw criticism for allegedly trying to limit the government’s ability to adequately address that problem of behemoth proportion.

It can be said that a middle ground is available between what Trump is proposing and the roadblocks to progress that the existing environmental guidelines oftentimes impose.

The challenge is to identify the right parameters for that middle ground, which will not be an easy task.

As the Journal article points out, there is no guarantee that the more than dozen changes to NEPA environmental-permit rules advocated by the administration will be attainable. That’s true even if the president survives the current impeachment proceedings and wins re-election in November.

Public hearings must be held, as well as other reviews, before the proposed changes can be put into effect. Those requirements could take more than a couple of months.

Even if the president were able to deal successfully with those hurdles, the prospect of court challenges by environmental groups and Democratic-led states would pose a big question mark as to how long actual implementation of the revised rules might take.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based organization known for its work protecting endangered species, called the president’s proposal a “gift to the fossil-fuel industry.”

“Forcing federal agencies to ignore environmental threats is a disgraceful abdication of our responsibility to protect the planet for future generations,” he said.

Still, it is reasonable to conclude that many environmental-impact studies — although not all — that have erected roadblocks to specific projects could have been accomplished in less time than what they entailed. However, the mindset that one or two study timetables can accommodate all issues and circumstances needs rethinking.

Americans frown on regulations that they deem overbearing, but they should be wary of going too far in red-tape-cutting as well.

A well-studied middle ground — one to which neither side, unfortunately, has yet expressed openness — is the best option.

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