GAO: Feds can’t say how much spent on environmental litigation

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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A report by the Government Accountability Office found that the federal government doesn’t have a government-wide system to track the number of lawsuits brought against it by special interest groups every year. On top of that, the government doesn’t even know how much it spends defending a key environmental law from legal challenges.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been subject to hundreds of lawsuits by environmental and business groups, but the government couldn’t tell you what it costs to defend these cases. These findings have troubled Republican lawmakers, who argue that NEPA lawsuits have been used by environmentalists to stall development projects.

“This report confirms that the federal government can’t even track how many lawsuits are caused by NEPA or how much it costs taxpayers to fund never-ending studies,” said Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and requested the GAO report.

House Republicans have long been after the costs imposed by federally mandated NEPA studies. Hastings was told by the Justice Department last year that NEPA litigation cost the government $22 million in attorney fees for 1,022 cases between 2009 and 2013. But these numbers are likely higher because there are no government-wide figures for NEPA litigation.

NEPA requires federal agencies to evaluate to the environmental impacts of regulatory actions or on major projects before they can be approved. But environmental groups have used the NEPA process to stall development they see as environmentally harmful, like major infrastructure projects on federal lands or even the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The GAO confirmed what western producers have been struggling with for years—long, drawn out NEPA analysis that prevents economic growth and job creation,” said Kathleen Sgamma, spokeswoman for the Western Energy Alliance.

According to the GAO, environmentalists and other interest groups launched 129 lawsuits per year on average between 2001 and 2008. The number of lawsuits fell in 2011 to only 94 cases, but each suit can set in motion a costly process that can drain millions in taxpayer dollars. MOst of these lawsuits are brought by citizen and environmental groups.

“Environmental groups use NEPA lawsuits, or just the threat, to hold up projects that provide society with reliable, affordable energy,” Sgamma added.

The GAO said that a NEPA study can cost anywhere between $6.6 million and $85 million depending on how comprehensive the report needs to be. But the federal government doesn’t even know how many of these studies it doesn every year, let alone how much each costs.

“Governmentwide data on the number and type of most National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses are not readily available, as data collection efforts vary by agency,” the GAO reports.

“Little information exists on the costs and benefits of completing NEPA analyses,” the GAO adds. “Agencies do not routinely track the cost of completing NEPA analyses, and there is no governmentwide mechanism to do so.”

What’s more troubling to industries reliant on federal approval, like the energy industry, is that NEPA analysis has been taking longer and longer to complete every year. The average NEPA analysis now takes 4.6 years to complete, with the total average time for a federal agency to complete an environmental report increased 34.2 days per year from 2000 to 2012.

Huge delays are in part because of lawsuits by environmental groups, which more often than not get NEPA analyses delayed, according to the GAO. Such delays have cost the economy 78,987 jobs and $17.8 billion in growth every year, according to the Western Energy Alliance.

“Costly, abusive lawsuits and endless government red-tape caused by NEPA harm new job creation, and there is a clear need to improve and modernize the law to ensure environmental reviews are completed in an efficient and timely manner so responsible decisions can be made on projects that will lead to new jobs and a growing economy,” Hastings said.

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