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Broad Support for Senate Committee Bill to Streamline Federal Permitting Process

A bill that would streamline permitting by federal agencies -- including permitting natural gas and other energy projects -- received bipartisan support Wednesday from members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs.

The committee voted 12-1 to favorably report S 280, which sponsor Rob Portman (R-OH) has titled the Federal Permitting Improvement Act of 2015.

Working through contentious issues had delayed the markup, but it was worthwhile, Portman said.

"We believe that based on the changes it's an improved bill in some respects and in other respects, frankly, it's just a bill now that has a chance to get through not just this committee, but to the floor and to the president for his signature."

The bill, first introduced in the Senate in January, would establish the Federal Permitting Improvement Council, to be chaired by a presidential appointee as executive director. The director would maintain an online database to track the status of federal reviews and authorizations of projects involving "renewable or conventional energy production, electricity transmission, surface transportation, aviation, ports and waterways, water resource projects, broadband, manufacturing or any other sector" as determined by the director and likely to require an initial investment of more than $200 million.

The bill would also require agencies to submit to the council plans for coordinating public and agency participation in, and completion of, required federal review and authorization, along with permitting timetables including intermediate and final deadlines for agency action and "a process for consultation with participating agencies early in the approval process to identify and address key issues of concern."

Agencies would be required to complete environmental reviews within 180 days after receiving relevant documents, and groups of three or more contiguous states would be allowed to enter into interstate compacts establishing regional infrastructure development agencies to facilitate authorization and review of projects.

Finally, S 280 would reduce the statute of limitations for judicial review of any authorization issued by agencies from six years to 150 days, and courts issuing injunctive relief would be required "to consider the potential for significant job losses or other economic harm from an order or injunction."

The bill had been scheduled for markup about a month ago, but was shelved while Portman worked with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), officials from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and others to fine tune the legislation.

In the original bill, an OMB official was to have headed the council, and projects requiring initial investment of as little as $25 million would have been included.

The compromise effort gained the support of all but one committee member Tuesday, including both Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and ranking member Thomas Carper (D-DE).

"We decided to postpone the markup because we had a sense that we could possibly get some more support from the other side of the aisle if we were willing to sit down and work with some of the contentious issues that we had at the time," Portman said. 

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