"Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected," President Obama joked in 2011 about his failed economic stimulus. But as funny as Obama and his millionaire CEO audience found this line, the American people were not amused.
Despite spending more than $1 trillion on programs to jump-start the economy, the nation's unemployment rate was still above 9 percent at the time. The major reason the stimulus failed to produce as many infrastructure jobs as White House economists predicted was that environmental laws -- particularly the National Environmental Policy Act, as currently written and administered -- make it next to impossible to get approval for projects in a timely manner.
Consider the Keystone XL Pipeline project, which was first proposed in September 2008. The privately-funded $7 billion project should have created over 13,000 construction jobs already, according to Obama's economic advisers. Those jobs don't yet exist, however, because the project is tied up in red tape. Federal bureaucrats have convened at least 20 Washington meetings, held nine field hearings along proposed pipeline routes from the Canadian border south to Texas, reviewed 1,800 comments, and written a 1,000-page Environmental Impact Statement, plus an 800-page Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.
But that wasn't enough, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which on Monday made public its letter objecting to the State Department's SEIS because it supposedly failed to properly consider alternative routes for the pipeline and underestimated the project's impact on global warming. The EPA is now demanding that the State Department redo most of the analysis in the SEIS before it makes a final decision in 90 days.
If at that point the EPA still does not like the State Department's final decision, then the issue will go to yet another gathering of bureaucrats, the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, which will issue its own report months later. Then, even if the CEQ approves the project, lavishly funded Big Green activists are sure to sue in federal court to block the project, thus preventing construction into the indefinite future. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in the construction industry is still 14.7 percent, and the Chinese keep offering inducements to Canada to forget the pipeline and sell its oil to them.
Not all infrastructure projects attract the same level of attention as the Keystone Pipeline, of course, but NEPA regularly inflicts costly delays on hundreds of projects every year. A recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce study found that 351 privately funded energy projects (like coal plants, wind farms or power lines) were either delayed or canceled because of NEPA in 2011 alone, at a cost to the U.S. economy of $577 billion in direct investment and 1.9 million jobs that could have been created. If Congress wants to lift the American economy out of what is still the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression, putting forth a balanced approach on NEPA planning delays would be a great place to start.