Obama Pledges In State of the Union To 'Clear Away The Red Tape' For Infrastructure Projects
President Barack Obama promised in his 2012 State of the Union address on Tuesday night to "sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects."
In doing so, he recalled the Great Depression, an era of both deprivation and ambition when the country "built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge."
But some experts say that slashing away at that rhetorical bogeyman -- "red tape" -- isn't as easy as it sounds. And one of the infrastructure projects that Obama previously "expedited" under an October presidential memorandum didn't get much of a turbocharge.
A look at a proposed alternative energy project in Vermont, planned by the Deerfield Wind subsidiary of Iberdrola Renewables, reveals the limits of what executive action alone can do to expedite infrastructure spending. It also shows how one person's "red tape" is another person's environmental review process. The federal environmental review process started in 2004 and is still ongoing, but a January 3 decision means the project will likely receive the Forest Service's blessing.
On Oct. 11, as part of a larger push to show that it was taking the lead on using infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy, the Obama administration issued a release stating that the "USDA Forest Service is working to expedite a Final Environmental Impact Statement before December 2011."
But that project was already scheduled to receive a decision from the Forest Service at the end of 2011, according to the agency.
In what a Forest Service spokesman, Ethan Ready, described as a "difficult decision, which involved balancing concerns for maintaining the aesthetic qualities of the forest, impacts to wildlife such as black bears, bats and birds, and concerns about noise," the plan to put 15 turbines on federal forest land in Vermont was approved on January 3.
"We were under the impression that the Forest Service timeline was about where it ended up being," said Iberdrola Renewables spokesman Paul Kopleman, meaning that the push from the executive branch had not really made much of a difference.
He noted that the project has been "in some form or another, under review for nearly seven years." So even if the administration's attention shaved off a few months, it didn't notably affect the overall timeline.
Still,"it never hurts to have an indication of a priority like that come from the highest levels," Kopleman added.
Environmentalists concerned about the precedent that a power-generating project placed on federal land might set are already talking about appealing, arguing that the federal government didn't properly consider the project's impact.
Petra Todorovich of America 2050, a national nonprofit advocating more federal spending on infrastructure, sees room for improvement in the federal approval process. The government could do include "imposing time limits on turnaround of documents and review, putting members of different agencies together in the same office to review projects together, and signing memorandum of understanding ahead of time to agree upon certain outcomes or 'environmental performance commitments,'" she said.
At the same time, she said, it's not just "red tape" that's at fault for delayed construction approvals. It's that the federal agencies charged with green-lighting projects are understaffed and overworked.
"The agencies are stretched thin, working on dozens of projects at a time, and as a result they drag on and on," she said. "Making some of these projects a priority and giving them the staff time they need will speed those projects up, but the others could still languish."
Even as Obama slashes obstacles on some projects, this might result in a slowing down of projects that he doesn't wish to prioritize. It will all depend on the language of the executive order he will issue, which has not yet been released.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misquoted Ethan Ready as referring to blackbirds instead of black bears and incorrectly stated the date of a Forest Service decision as January 4 instead of January 3.