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Dredging the Future

George Will, in his column yesterday, notes that, a century ago, it took ten years to build the Panama Canal, one of the most challenging engineering feats of the age, a project that had to cope with a remote location, yellow fever, and steam-shovel technology. Building the new locks for the canal, which will allow much larger ships to use it, will take eight years. It will be completed in 2014. But the new “Panamax” ships will not be able to use many east coast harbors, such as Savannah and Charleston–the 4th busiest port on the east coast–because the harbors are not deep enough to handle ships that will carry up to 18,000 containers.

The solution, of course, is easy: dredge the harbors. But Savannah began studying the possibility of dredging in 1999. Today, 13 years later, the study is still not completed. When and if it is, the dredging itself will take five years. So even if dredging started today, Savannah will not be able to take the new Panamax ships until three years after they begin to transit the canal. But dredging won’t start upon completion of the environmental study because various self-appointed guardians of the environment will–as surely as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow–sue, arguing over every comma of the environmental impact statement that will run to thousands of pages. These groups have become past masters at using the legal system to delay–and thus all too often kill–projects they do not approve of, which, it seems, is nearly all of them.

Charleston’s harbor is 45 feet deep, so it would only need to be dredged five feet to take these new ships. It would cost about $300 million and would deliver about $100 million in net annual benefits to Charleston, paying for itself in only three years. It would also lower prices for many goods in the eastern United States, as 70 percent of goods imported from Asia now offload in west coast ports and are trans-shipped by railroad and truck, a much more expensive way to transport freight.

The Chamber of Commerce has a website listing hundreds of energy projects that are in limbo because of the broken permit system in this country. Many of them are so-called renewable energy projects, such as wind farms, so even projects one would think environmentalists would encourage are endlessly delayed. (To be sure, some opposition comes from the NIMBY syndrome: Not In My Back Yard.) And these are only energy projects, not transportation, housing, pipeline, and industrial projects.

This is a clear and present danger to the future of the American economy. The environment needs to be carefully protected and local opinion should be taken into account. But neither should be allowed to trump any and all other considerations. Nor should the permitting process be open-ended.

Steven Hayward over at Powerline has some ideas on how to fix the system:

The regulatory review process ought to have a short deadline. Agency review should be completed within six or nine months, with a presumption in favor of granting permission unless an agency can delineate a substantively new problem based on precedents from previous similar projects (that is, no speculative objections based on what global warming might do 75 years from now, as actually happened to a proposed project in California a few years back where regulators denied a building permit on the theory that rising sea levels would make the land habitat for an endangered species that would want to move upland). Standing to sue to block projects should be tightened, and the threshold for hearing such suits made much more restrictive. And how about requiring that all Environmental Impact Statements be no longer than 200 pages? I’’m sure all the environmental lawyers and consultants who charge by the hour and make a bundle doing these multi-volume EIRs that no one reads will howl, but if the Supreme Court can limit briefs to 50 pages on matters of high constitutional importance, why can’’t our regulatory process not emulate a standard of brevity that emphasizes the essential over the frivolous and tedious?

The successful completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 was a great psychological moment for the United States, providing powerful evidence that this country could do anything it set its mind to. That attitude built the Hoover Dam, produced the industrial miracle that won World War II, constructed the Interstate Highway System, and sent men to the moon. Today, it seems, we can’t even dredge a harbor, a technology that goes back centuries.