Governor signs bill intended to speed environmental review; passed Legislature with large, bipartisan majorities

The Lens reports Gov. Inslee signed legislation intended to expedite environmental reviews

Last week, Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law which would encourage timely completion of state economic impact statements (EIS) for proposed development projects.

Proponents of the “shot clock” bill are praising the new law as a way to attract new businesses to the state, assuring investors they can rely on EIS timelines for future developments.

Good outcomes often begin with good intentions, though it’s also true that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. We’ll hope this does. 

The bill, HB 1086, states, in part

A lead agency shall aspire to prepare a final environmental impact statement … in as expeditious a manner as possible while not compromising the integrity of the analysis.

(a) For even the most complex government decisions associated with a broad scope of possible environmental impacts, a lead agency shall aspire to prepare a final environmental impact statement … within twenty-four months of a threshold determination of a probable significant, adverse environmental impact. 

(b) Wherever possible, a lead agency shall aspire to far outpace the twenty-four month time limit established in this section for more commonplace government decisions associated with narrower and more easily identifiable environmental impacts.

As The Lens reports and the clear language of the legislation makes clear,

The two-year goal is not a strict requirement, however, and lead agencies will not be penalized for being tardy. Inslee signed the measure into law on Tuesday, May 16.

The bill was originally more prescriptive.

The original bill required lead agencies missing the 24-month deadline to report to the legislature within 30 days why the EIS was not completed and when it would be expected to finish. Also, they would need to develop a procedure for timely EIS completion moving forward.

The Lens writes,

“In the course of working the bill we did soften its bite a little bit, but that was necessary to get the bipartisan support we got for it,” said State Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19), cosponsor of the bill. “It’s a step in the right direction. I would have liked to keep some of the teeth in the original version which were a little more strict on the regulatory agencies in enforcing the two-year period. Now, it’s more of a suggested timeframe and I think it will make development easier.”

The bill passed the House with 95 votes; the Senate with 44. Notably supporting the measure are backers of a project that prompted state regulators to head into unprecedented territory.

The proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals (MBT) coal export terminal project in Longview is nearing the  five years and three month mark in its permitting process, with the project’s EIS portion starting back in September 2013.

Kristin Gaines, vice president of environmental planning and services at MBT, sees the new law as a “positive first step” for future project developments…

“I think it is letting the business community know that Washington state wants to be open for business, but I think the first versions of that bill did a better job of setting criteria for a business entity of how long it would take to get through the environmental review process,” Gaines added.

 In our 2017 foundation report update, we cited the MBT example. 

Regulatory compliance raises the cost of developing facilities and operations. Sometimes this impact is indirect, as when development regulations drive up the cost of leasing commercial and industrial space. Other times it is more direct, as seen with the very aggressive environmental approach being taken with the evaluation of proposed energy export terminals at Cherry Point and Longview.

In evaluating the environmental impacts of these projects under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), the Washington State Department of Ecology has taken the unprecedented position of considering greenhouse gas emissions that will result from the use of these products at their destination. This regulatory overreach threatens jobs and economic activity at these planned facilities, and sets a dangerous precedent for evaluating other projects based on impacts outside the state.

The recent release of the MBT EIS does little to assuage concern. Timely completion of environmental reviews would be a positive step. Ideally, aspirations will be met. In our report, we also recommend “that regulatory policies should be regularly reviewed to see that benefits justify the costs of compliance.”