The Trump administration, wanting to rebuild America's infrastructure as quickly as possible, has issued several executive orders to streamline the permitting and environmental review process for federally funded projects.
But environmentalists, legal experts, and some lawmakers are now questioning the wisdom of these measures in the wake of major flooding and destruction caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
These critics say the storms show the importance of building smartly and how the Trump administration, which is skeptical of climate change, should consider the role of violent weather in developing infrastructure policies.
"The executive order will facilitate construction of things in places we know almost for sure are going to flood, and that's terrible public policy," Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, told the Washington Examiner.
Lehrer says speeding up the permitting process is a "perfectly worthy goal," but he worries about a part of President Trump's Aug. 15 executive order that rolls back the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, established by former President Barack Obama in 2015.
The standard required the federal government to account for climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure in floodprone areas.
"That standard is basically a way of stopping dumb stuff from being built," Lehrer said. "Rescinding it may make it slightly easier to build infrastructure, but it also assures infrastructure that's built will be destroyed. It's hugely fiscally irresponsible."
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert recently indicated the Trump administration, after responding to the recent hurricanes and realizing the major costs required to rebuild, is considering replacing the 2015 standard with a new one that imposes similar requirements.
"At the time we rescinded [the 2015 standard], we did so in the hope of expediting infrastructure development in this country, which I think was a smart move, and the president did as well," Bossert said at a Sept. 8 White House press briefing. "But now we have to replace it with thoughtful building standards and practices for the expenditure of federal money that makes floodplain and risk mitigation sense. We need to build back smarter and stronger."
Even if the Trump administration reconsiders the flood-plain issue, the president has also eliminated other policies aimed at considering climate change and environmental impacts into infrastructure planning.
Trump's Aug. 15 executive order has other provisions meant to encourage faster approvals of infrastructure projects. The order calls for "timely decisions" on projects with the goal of completing "environmental reviews and authorization decisions for major infrastructure projects within 2 years."
The Interior Department this month issued a memo directing its agencies to limit environmental impact statements to 150 pages "or 300 pages for unusually complex projects."
The memo also asks agencies to complete environmental impact statements within one year.
Imposing these requirements will allow the Interior Department to focus on environmental concerns that "truly matter rather than amassing unnecessary detail," the agency said.
Supporters of these actions say environmental reviews have lengthened over recent years as developers face threats of litigation.
"The Trump administration is exactly right that there are huge delays in the permitting process and these delays make it very difficult to finish a project," Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Examiner. "Even though the project may eventually be approved, environmental pressure groups have been successful in twisting the process in such a way that litigation can be almost endless."
Environmental studies are required by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
The Council on Environmental Quality, a White House division that oversees reviews required by NEPA, issued guidelines in 1978 meant to limit the length of environmental impact statements to 150 pages or 300 pages for complex projects. But reviews in recent years regularly number in the thousands of pages, experts say.
Ebell, who led Trump's Environmental Protection Agency transition team, says these delays threaten to undermine the president's overall infrastructure investment agenda.
"His infrastructure plan, assuming he gets Congress to go along with several billions of new spending, will never happen if he can't figure out how to get these projects through the permitting process," Ebell said. "His plan depends upon the successes of these administrative procedural reforms."
Environmental groups, however, argue the Trump administration's permitting directives are legally vulnerable because they were imposed administratively, meaning they can have the unintended consequence of attracting court battles that lengthen project approvals.
Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, says arbitrary time and length limits to environmental reviews don't allow for the public to properly understand the impacts of government-funded projects such as oil pipelines and drilling rigs built on federal lands.
"The last place the federal government ought to be cutting corners is in environmental reviews," Saul told the Washington Examiner. "Paradoxically, I don't think putting arbitrary timelines and page limits in environmental rules will result in things happening fastly. What I have seen in NEPA litigation is that when agencies try to take short cuts, they violate the law."
Members of Congress sympathetic to Trump's views on streamlining the permitting process for infrastructure say longstanding change can happen only legislatively.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has called for reforms to the NEPA law to accelerate the review process, while still considering environmental impact.
"NEPA was intended to provide a balanced approach to economic development and environmental protection," Bishop told the Washington Examiner. "In practice, NEPA is exploited and abused as the basis to delay and prevent a range of activities from ever getting off the ground. We look forward to providing the statutory tools necessary so agencies can improve efficiency and accomplish these goals."