Should Environmental Laws be Waived to Expedite Stimulus Spending?

Much of the debate over the potential effectiveness of Congress’ economic stimulus bill centers on how quickly the $800-billion-plus can be spent.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office — formerly run by Obama’s new budget director, Peter Orszag — has estimated that 64% of the House stimulus money can be disbursed within the first 18 months. Meanwhile, Orszag himself has promised to let loose 75% of it into the economy.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), who’s been concerned with thae spend-out rate in general, recently asked the CBO to evaluate ways that the stimulus money could be spent quicker. The CBO’s first answer? “Waiving requirements for environmental and judicial reviews” of the impact of stimulus spending projects, according to a letter released today (and downloadable here).This is a prospect that has troubled environmental groups. In a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month, a broad green coalition argued that waiving requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in order to speed through stimulus projects would be counter-productive. From the letter:

Inevitably, in the course of congressional consideration, special interests will assert that we cannot afford the NEPA process in a time of national urgency. The truth is that we cannot afford that kind of leap-before-you-look rashness. We have neither the time nor the resources to waste on measures that ultimately prove to be unproductive or harmful.

The issue of waiving environmental reviews is particularly contentious in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is locked in a battle with green groups over 10 major highway projects.

When White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked about environmental waivers at today’s press briefing, he said:

Let me give for you in this answer what the president told the governors when he met with them — I guess this would have been sometime in mid- to late November in Philadelphia, because this was an issue that was raised, I think maybe by Governor Schwarzenegger or by one of the other governors, regulatory red tape, so to speak.

And the president simply said, you know, if there are things that we can do to speed money into the economy as it relates to infrastructure spending or things like that, he’s more than happy to take a look at them, in — in order to get this money infused into the economy and putting people back to work as quickly as possible.