Bipartisan bill limits federal environmental review of telecoms projects

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Just don’t disturb the ground.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. senate aims to put some common sense into environmental law, at least where wireless facilities are concerned. Co-authored by U.S. senators Roger Wicker (R – Mississippi) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D – Nevada), senate bill 1988, aka the Speed act, would exempt a “communication facility installation” from federal environmental and historic reviews, if there’s already infrastructure in place in the project area.

Wireless infrastructure gets additional exemptions. Federal, state and local agencies would be barred from conducting reviews otherwise called by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or requiring others to do so if the proposed wireless facility is:

  • In an existing public right of way, and
  • Any ground disturbance is limited to that right of way, and
  • The structure is no more than 50 feet tall or 10 feet higher than existing structures already in that right of way, whichever is higher, and has no guy wires.

There’s no blanket preemption of local and state authority in the bill. The exemptions are limited to federal law. It specifically says that “nothing in this section shall be construed to affect…the authority of a State or local government to apply and enforce the zoning and other land use regulations of the State or local government to the extent consistent with” federal law.

Its effect in California will be limited. Here, NEPA generally applies only when federal agencies or land is involved in a project. Usually, it’s the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that governs environmental reviews and it would not be affected by the bill as currently written.

I would not give S-1988 much of a chance of making it into law as is, though. The big reason is that telecoms bills – even widely supported bipartisan ones – have gotten stuck in congressional gridlock over the past couple of years. If it gets unstuck, telecoms lobbyists will try to add perks, particularly ones that would similarly preempt state and local laws. Some or all of the language could also get rolled into other bill, such as happened with dig once legislation, which was incorporated into, and then cut from, the still-stalled Mobile Now act.