A Senate bill now making its rounds in the House might finally improve Washington’s lengthy permitting process and save project leaders headache. That is according to lawmakers in favor of SB 5438, which passed out of the House Environment Committee unanimously this week. The measure would require state agencies undergoing State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review to plan to complete environmental impact statements (EIS’s) within two years, or quicker when feasible.
Permitting is a problem for Washington state. In a October 2016 report, the Washington Maritime Federation recommended the state adopt stricter timelines for completing project deadlines to prevent stalled development and missed economic opportunities.
The Millennium Bulk Terminals (MBT) coal export project in Longview recently passed a five year mark since its permitting process began in February 2012. The EIS review began in September 2013 and its draft EIS was released last April. The project’s final EIS isn’t expected until sometime between now and July 2017, despite “meeting or exceeding strict environmental regulations every step of the way,” said MBT President CEO Bill Chapman in a July guest commentary.
Braun: ‘Keep Progress Moving Forward’
Prime sponsor of SB 5438 is State Sen. John Braun (R-20). Cosponsors include State Sens. Dean Takko (D-19), Majority Caucus Chair Randi Becker (R-2), and Majority Whip Barbara Bailey (R-2).
“It’s just a good bill to help keep…progress moving forward in our state,” Braun told colleagues on the Senate floor during March 2 executive session.
The bill’s companion, HB 1086, cleared the House unanimously on March 2. That measure is sponsored by State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19). The bill received its first Senate public hearing on March 14 in front of the Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, but is not currently scheduled for public hearing.
Under the SB 5438, lead agencies going through a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review must aim to finish an EIS within two years after determining the analysis is needed, or as quickly as possible without sacrificing the intent of the examination. For more straightforward projects or those with more obvious environmental impacts, the agencies are directed to “aspire to far outpace” two years, according to the bill text.
Starting at the end of 2018 and every two years after, the Department of Ecology must report information on the competed EIS’s during the last two years to relevant legislative committees. The assessment must include the average and scope of EIS completion times.
Considering Business and Industry Needs
On March 2, the Senate approved the measure in a 46-3 vote. Lawmakers voting in opposition were State Sens. Maralyn Chase (D-32), Sam Hunt (D-22), and Democratic Caucus Chair John McCoy (D-38).
On the Senate floor, Sen. Dean Takko (D-19) highlighted the importance of the measure for Washington’s businesses. “Permitting in this state has become really quite convoluted…what we need and what business needs and industry wants when they apply for a permit is certainty…and that’s what this is trying to address, to get the permits going…and let us make a decision, and move onward,” he said.
During executive session, State Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) called the bill “an important aspirational policy” and urged support of the bill.
State Sen. Jan Angel (R-26) was also supportive of the bill’s intent. “When we’ve had projects that we’ve considered really important on a state basis look how fast some of this stuff has gotten done. All this bill is asking for is timely completion,” she said.
Concerns Raised About Permitting Timelines
However, McCoy rose in opposition. “Having done a lot of work in this area, the time it takes to complete one of these applications depends on how big the project is, how complex it is, and how thorough the developer has filled out all that paperwork. All too many times a lot of the paperwork comes in incomplete and then you get into this back and forth thing,” he said.
State Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-40), although voting in favor of the bill’s passage, cited concern with the pressure placed on agency workers.
“There are cases…where these EIS’ has taken too long, however I believe an EIS should take as long as it needs to take to do it right. While this is not demanding that they be done in two years, it is starting to move in that direction. I would be very concerned if our wonderful staff at our state agencies conducting these environmental reviews felt like there was a 24 month window when they had to complete all of their work no matter what, even though that work actually may take longer.”
State Sen. Shelly Short (R-7) disagreed with Ranker, arguing the agencies need a tighter guideline. “In my district, we have seen a lot of these large projects where agencies don’t do things in a streamlined or a coordinated fashion, and they do these things to try and continue to draw things out.”
“We do want that really good, legitimate environmental analysis, but too often times these agencies” don’t use a timeline “to make their decisions…it really cause projects grief and it doesn’t add to the environment or protecting the environment,” she added.
Including Incomplete EIS’s In Legislative Report
On Monday, March 27, the measure received a 9-0 vote and was sent out of the House Environment Committee.
State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) is Chair of the committee, and sponsored an amendment eventually adopted into the bill. SB 5438 “directs Ecology to report to us every two years about EIS’s and their completion, however it does not reference EIS’s that are still in progress and potentially taking longer than two years which I understood to be the intent of the bill,” he told colleagues.
Under Fitzgibbon’s amendment, Ecology in its biennial report must also include a summary of ongoing or incomplete EIS’s that have taken longer than two years.
“It’s valuable for the legislature to know about how long it takes for environmental impact statements and figure out if that informs our thinking around SEPA and encourages us to make changes to it,” said Fitzgibbon during the committee’s executive session on the bill. “I think it’s valuable information for us to have.”