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Faster Infrastructure Permitting Signaled by DOE, EPA, Interior and Other Agencies

Eight months after President Trump called for the federal government to expedite its review and permitting of major infrastructure projects, 12 agencies agreed Monday to follow permitting timetables designed to complete the reviews within two years.

Seven cabinet-level departments including the Department of Interior (DOI) and the Department of Energy, as well as FERC, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to coordinate their environmental review of projects, which should include oil and natural gas pipelines.

Other signatories of the MOU include the Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Homeland Security departments, plus the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council.

"No longer will we allow the infrastructure of our magnificent country to crumble and decay," Trump said. "While protecting the environment, we will build gleaming new roads, bridges, railways, waterways, tunnels, and highways."

DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke said his department "understands the importance of having an efficient permitting process. I am 100% committed to ensuring that the DOI does its part to collaborate and work together with other federal agencies to complete the necessary reviews in accordance with the permitting timetable."

In a note to clients Tuesday, analysts with ClearView Energy Partners LLC said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has averaged 20.2 months for "major certificate reviews" since the firm began tracking them in 2010. Under the MOU, the permitting process is considered to have started once a notice of intent (NOI) to prepare an environmental impact statement is filed.

"For projects that rely on the Commission's pre-filing process, the NOI occurs before the formal application is filed," ClearView analysts said. "By this metric, the Commission's review intervals wind up slightly longer than the two-year target, at 756 days, or 25.2 months. In short, we think that FERC will be able to meet these new targets."

Under the MOU, one federal agency is to serve as the lead agency responsible for steering a project through the entire federal environmental review and permitting process. Trump put forth the lead agency concept in an executive order (EO) he signed last August. At the time, the EO received praise from several trade associations representing the oil and gas industry.

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) and the American Petroleum Institute (API) reacted cautiously to the news.

"We appreciate the guidance given to all permitting agencies to work cooperatively on reviewing infrastructure projects," INGAA spokeswoman Cathy Landry told NGI's Shale Daily. "By law, FERC is already designated as the lead agency for interstate natural gas projects. We view better cooperation and concurrent review by participating agencies as important to the timely review of proposed pipeline projects."

API spokeswoman Sabrina Fang added that a streamlined regulatory process "is good for our economy, consumers, and strengthens our national security. Industry relies upon a cost-effective regulatory system that promotes the certainty and predictability necessary to make the massive capital investments required to bring energy and other projects to the U.S. economy."

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) used the rollout of the MOU as an opportunity to tout the U.S. shale revolution.

"Updating America's infrastructure will facilitate job creation, including in the chemistry industry, which -- thanks to shale gas -- is experiencing historic growth," the ACC said. "Overcoming today's infrastructure challenges will help ensure that our nation can fully realize the benefits of increased production."

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Neil Bradley said streamlining the permitting process for infrastructure projects "is critical for generating economic growth...Simply put, it shouldn't take longer to approve a project than to build it. Environmental reviews are crucial to ensuring clean air and water, but it's possible and necessary for the reviews to be completed in a more timely manner."

Association of Oil Pipe Lines spokesman John Stoody said "two years is more than enough time for a reasonable review of the environmental impacts of a project."

Trump also touched on speeding up the permitting process last February, when he unveiled a $4.4 trillion budget proposal to fund the federal government in fiscal year 2019. The budget proposal included $137.2 million for DOI's Bureau of Land Management to "expedite permitting to facilitate increased environmentally responsible energy development."

The MOU was issued under a joint memorandum by Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Mary Neumayr, acting chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. Both are offices within the White House.

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