Actions Needed to Fully Develop Performance Schedules for Environmental Reviews
GAO-20-19: Published: Oct 29, 2019. Publicly Released: Oct 29, 2019.
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The 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act sought to streamline and improve the federal environmental review of and authorization process for 10 kinds of major infrastructure projects, including pipelines and renewable energy production.
The act created a council to oversee the actions of the reviewing agencies and establish timelines for how long environmental reviews and authorizations should take for these kinds of projects.
The council has started work on the timelines for three infrastructure areas that account for about 80% of projects. We recommended improvements to the process the council is using to develop its timelines.
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What GAO Found
GAO found that the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council's (Permitting Council) process for developing and assessing member agencies' implementation of best practices for environmental reviews and authorizations, as required by Title 41 of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (FAST-41), was generally consistent with key features of effective interagency collaboration that GAO has previously identified, such as having shared goals and establishing mechanisms to measure performance.The Permitting Council, an interagency body established by FAST-41, oversees the implementation of FAST-41's provisions to streamline the federal permitting process.
As of July 2019, the Permitting Council has not issued performance schedules for ten infrastructure sectors, as mandated by FAST-41, due to a lack of sufficient project data and resource constraints. These schedules are to serve as baselines for environmental reviews and authorizations for projects covered under FAST-41. The Permitting Council has taken steps to develop performance schedules for the three infrastructure sectors—pipelines, renewable energy production, and electricity transmission—that account for 80 percent of the 43 FAST-41 projects (see figure). GAO found that the process the Permitting Council used to develop draft performance schedules for the three sectors did not fully implement two of three selected best practices for project schedules identified by GAO: (1) maintaining the baseline schedule and (2) conducting an analysis of potential risks. For example, the Permitting Council's process included identifying the relevant environmental review actions for infrastructure projects, but it did not take into account how potential risks, such as incomplete applications by project sponsors, could result in delays of the actions. Without incorporating these selected best practices, the Permitting Council will be constrained in developing defensible performance schedules against which to evaluate whether the FAST-41 process has improved the environmental review and authorization process.
Infrastructure Projects Covered under Title 41 of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, by Lead Agency and Sector, as of July 2019
Why GAO Did This Study
FAST-41 outlined specific procedures for improving the timeliness, predictability, and transparency of the environmental review and authorization process for certain infrastructure projects in 10 specific sectors, including pipelines, renewable energy projects, and electricity transmission.
Congress included provisions in statute for GAO to review the efforts of the Permitting Council to implement FAST-41. This report examines, among other objectives, the Permitting Council's process for developing and assessing implementation of best practices for environmental reviews, and the steps the Permitting Council has taken to develop performance schedules for the 10 infrastructure sectors. GAO reviewed the Permitting Council's documents and guidance; evaluated the council's process for developing performance schedules against selected GAO best practices related to the development of the schedules; and interviewed officials from federal agencies that are members of the Permitting Council, as well as selected project sponsors selected based on several factors, including projects' status and infrastructure sector.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that the Executive Director of the Permitting Council incorporate selected best practices into its process for developing performance schedules for infrastructure projects covered under FAST-41. The Executive Director agreed with the recommendation and described current and planned actions to address it.
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Recommendation for Executive Action
Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Recommendation: The Executive Director of the Permitting Council should incorporate selected best practices we have identified (maintaining the baseline schedule and conducting a risk analysis) into the Permitting Council's process for developing performance schedules for the infrastructure sectors covered under FAST-41. (Recommendation 1)
Agency Affected: Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council