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Guest opinion: This outdated federal law keeps Utah in the past

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Utah grew faster than any other state over the past decade — and growth shows no signs of slowing. By 2050, our state’s population is projected to swell to 5 million people. To accommodate this growth, officials have outlined a nearly $2 billion plan to upgrade the state’s roads.

A proposed update to federal law could help get this and other projects off the ground. The White House is currently revamping the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a 50-year-old law that dictates environmental standards for federally funded public works projects.

As it stands, NEPA impedes crucial projects with outdated, redundant regulations. Updating this law will streamline Utah’s infrastructure projects without harming the environment.

Signed into law in 1970, NEPA requires federal officials to evaluate the potential environmental impact of government-funded projects. Local, state and federal bodies must comply with 475 pages of NEPA regulations before they can repair highways and power lines or break ground on new pipelines and water systems.

Since the law was last updated in the 1980s, the NEPA review process has become confusing and expensive. Between the 1970s and 2011, the average length of a NEPA assessment grew from two to six years.

Applicants today have to comply with several agency-specific NEPA processes and rectify federal protocol with state and local guidelines. Less than 20% of the Environmental Impact Statements required by NEPA are completed in under two years.

That’s concerning, given America’s infrastructure needs. In its most recent report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D+. Failure to improve the country’s infrastructure could cost the United States 2.5 million jobs and $7 trillion over the next five years, according to the U.S Chamber of Commerce.

The complicated NEPA approval process has delayed several important infrastructure projects right here in Utah. Nearly half of our state’s major roads are in “poor or mediocre condition,” according to TRIP, a transportation research nonprofit. Driving on these roads costs Utahans $1.4 billion in vehicle damage every year — nearly $700 per driver.

Some infrastructure issues pose more than a financial problem. Consider our outdated levees. The Army Corps of Engineers deemed 19.5 of the 21 miles it tracks “unacceptable.” Subpar levees have already caused serious flooding in Weber County. FEMA estimates that 72 miles of Utah’s levees will soon require evaluation.

NEPA also makes it harder for firms to harness Utah’s energy resources. Environmental groups frequently exploit NEPA in order to delay energy projects, often with frivolous litigation. In 2019, the Bureau of Land Management pulled back dozens of Obama-era oil and gas leases in Utah in response to lawsuits filed by activists.  

Delays like this impede all sorts of energy projects — including the “green” projects endorsed by politicians and presidential candidates.

Revamping NEPA would make Utah’s energy industry more productive than ever. The sector already generates 50,000 high-paying jobs and adds $20 billion to the state’s economy each year.

Other industries would benefit from changes to NEPA as well. Expediting infrastructure projects would allow the construction sector to add to the 110,000 jobs it currently supports.  

The White House’s proposed changes would make NEPA more efficient without compromising environmental standards. Infrastructure projects would still have to pass comprehensive evaluations. The changes would simply speed up those evaluations by improving coordination across federal agencies and enabling regulators to use existing data when possible.

Utah needs safe, effective infrastructure to meet the needs of its growing population. A modernized NEPA will make it easier to improve our roads and bridges, and boost our economy in the process.

Julie Fullmer is the mayor of Vineyard, Utah, the fastest-growing city in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.