Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) sponsored an amendment last week that would have exempted any project funded by the stimulus plan from costly, and mandatory National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) reviews. The amendment would have allowed any project whose NEPA review takes longer than 270 days to be exempt from the review requirement. Worried that one of their most powerful weapons for killing economic growth would be undermined, environmentalists rallied to gut the amendment. The stimulus bill now only requires:

(a) Adequate resources within this bill must be devoted to ensuring that applicable environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act are completed on an expeditious basis and that the shortest existing applicable process under the National Environmental Policy Act shall be utilized.

(b) The President shall report to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee every 90 days until September 30, 2011, following the date of enactment on the status and progress of projects and activities funded by this act with respect to compliance with National Environmental Policy Act requirements and documentation.

This language essentially guts Barrasso’s amendment, ensuring that our nation’s environmental laws will strangle whatever decent energy infrastructure is in the bill. The Washington Post reports today:

The nation’s richest resources of renewable fuel — primarily wind and solar — lie in distant deserts, vast plains, and remote valleys and hilltops like this one, far from the populous cities where energy is most needed. Thousands of miles of new power lines will be required to bring renewable energy to cities and suburbs, a vast undertaking that will cost untold billions of dollars in public and private money and will require compromise by dueling interest groups and people such as Tisdale.

There are other hurdles besides financing, including multiple steps of permitting, as well as logistics and opposition to the transmission lines that would crisscross slabs of unspoiled landscape.

“From the time we first proposed it in 2005, we won’t finish it until 2012,” said Michael R. Niggli, San Diego Gas & Electric’s chief operating officer, who helped steer the Sunrise Powerlink through layers of approval last year. Opponents have since sued, citing environmental shortcomings.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Joseph L. Welch, chief executive of ITC Holdings, whose 15,000 miles of power lines make it the nation’s sixth-largest transmission system. “We’ll probably spend as much on attorneys as we will on that line. . . . We’re mired down in a process and I, for the life of me, don’t understand it.”

Normally it takes a federal construction projects an average of 4.4 years to complete a NEPA review. Throw in the Clean Water Act’s section 404 requirements, and before a single shovel can hit the earth it usually takes 5.6 years for the average federal project to jump through all the normal environmental hoops. Since environmentalists killed any chance of regulatory reform, the billions in infrastructure spending in this stimulus bill will not be spent till years after the economy has already recovered.