A bill to expedite permitting for broadband projects on federal land cleared the House Natural Resources Committee on a voice vote Wednesday, cheering advocates of rural broadband.

“Currently the permitting process for broadband across federal land can take many years, in some cases eight or nine years. This is unacceptable,” said Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, the bill’s chief sponsor. Curtis said the bill would speed up the permitting process while safeguarding federal environmental laws, but Ranking Member Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., criticized the bill for allowing projects to be exempt from review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, called the committee’s approval of the bill “a welcome step forward in the efforts to streamline broadband permitting processes in existing highway rights-of-way for broadband infrastructure projects.” NTCA, she said, “hopes this legislation will help move us toward a more streamlined and harmonized set of permitting processes.”

And Derrick B. Ownes, senior vice president of government & industry affairs at Advocates for Rural Broadband, said that “every dollar spent on duplicative environmental reviews is one less dollar available for investment in a robust broadband network. We encourage the House of Representatives to consider and pass H.R. 4824.”

There’s no schedule yet for the full House’s consideration of H.R. 4824. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate, S. 604, but it has yet to receive a hearing.

Under the bill, states could assume federal environmental permitting responsibilities for broadband projects along highway rights of way. The bill also would establish a Categorical Exclusion under NEPA for such projects, which means they would not be subject to environmental review.

“BLM supports efforts to streamline the environmental review process, and believes categorical exclusions can be an effective tool for reducing delay and cost in permitting,” Timothy R. Spisak, BLM’s acting assistant director for energy, minerals, and realty management, said in testimony to the committee last month.

Grijalva said an amendment introduced by Curtis went a long way toward addressing Democrats’ concern with the bill, because it ensures that tribes will be consulted on actions planned for their lands.

Nevertheless, the bill “still creates a broad categorical exclusion for broadband projects in existing rights of way,” Grijalva said. At the hearing last month, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Sharon Buccino said that while some rights of way may be perfect for wireless infrastructure because they already have telephone poles and power lines, other ROW’s may be relatively undisturbed.  

“The blanket exclusion fails to distinguish where the impact might be minimal from circumstances in which it might not,” Buccino said.

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