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November 24, 2008

Removing Obstacles to Obama’s Job Growth Plan

Given current "environmental" legislation, it will be impossible to create a meaningful number of jobs except for engineers and lawyers by next summer no matter how much federal money we allocate to this worthy endeavor. Decades of well-meaning legislation and regulation, a reaction and then over-reaction to real environmental abuses of the past, have left us unable to begin construction on any significant project until decades – I mean that literally – after the approval process has begun.

The good news is that this is all under our control IFF we can pull together to maintain essential environmental protection AND eliminate unnecessary delay. We can and we ought to be rebuilding our roads and bridges and our power grid by next construction season. We ought to be increasing access to domestic energy from both traditional and alternative sources. Those jobs are badly needed and a trillion dollars spent on infrastructure projects has an almost certain return – very unlike the trillion or so we're spending to bail out banks and bankers.

When I was Vermont Secretary of Transportation in the '80s, it took twenty years to build a road – seventeen went to getting the necessary permits, one to property acquisition, two to construction. Since then things have gotten worse – the delays have gotten longer. These weren't massive projects; any activity of any scale requires an environmental impact statement and myriad approvals. Each approval process is open to intervention both by those with genuine concerns and those who'd just prefer that no development of any kind occur anywhere near them. Each approval is subject to court challenge and seemingly infinite delay. There is little cost to the intervener for frivolous intervention but huge costs to the builder for delay. Absurd compromises are made under essentially extortionary pressure of threatened delay.

Genuine environmentalists are hardly the main cause of delay. Those who'd prefer not to see any windmills on a ridgeline in their view develop a sudden concern for migrating birds. Those who'd prefer not to have a new powerline nearby discover a family of squirrels with strange colored tails not easily found elsewhere in proximity to a planned footing. Rumors of aboriginal burial grounds – or the impossibility of proving that one never existed in a particular location – can hold up a needed project for years.

If we were able to assure that environmental and other concerns could be given an appropriate hearing in a short time certain, we'd not only be able to create the new public jobs the President-elect is proposing in the requisite timeframe but would also see a flood of private projects unleashed. These project can't get funding now because of the huge uncertainty about the elapsed time to revenue.

It'll be easy to get Congress to pass a massive jobs bill; but Obama has a bridging challenge here between the "environmental" and "jobs" wings of the Democratic Party if the jobs are actually going to get created in the near future. President Bush neatly and cynically exposed this gap when he proposed that the $25 billion slated to help the auto industry retool for greener cars be released without restriction to save auto maker jobs. Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid were having none of that even though John Dingell (now deposed as committee chair in favor of "environmentalist" Waxman) would've gone for it in the blink of an eye.

The main threat facing the environment today is that ALL environmental legislation will be swept aside in the understandable panic of massive job loss. The job for us environmentalists is to propose sensible alternatives that DO allow jobs to be created and DO NOT allow environmental protection to be used to impose unreasonable delay.

There is an urgency of now.

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