The recently enacted Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) to suspend the debt ceiling until 2024 left many Republicans frustrated that deeper cuts weren’t achieved. While there is much more work needed to reign in Washington spending, there were some important reforms that missed a lot of the headlines. 

Notably, conservationists and environmentalists alike can rejoice in the bill’s historic reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which imposes burdensome requirements on new fossil fuel and renewable energy projects. The reforms to NEPA are the first since 1982 and will likely speed up environmental review. Still, the compromise missed the opportunity to make litigation less disruptive.

The reforms mainly impose time and page limits to different types of environmental review. The FRA requires that environmental assessments, used to evaluate simple projects unlikely to have a “reasonably foreseeable” effect on the human environment, be completed within one year and be under 75 pages. For environmental impact statements, a more intensive type of review for projects that may have significant effects, the process must be finished within two years and be under 150 pages. Page lengths may extend to 300 pages for projects of “extraordinary complexity.”

These may seem like massive, bureaucratic documents—and they no doubt will continue to be—but this is an enormous improvement over the average EIS length of 661 pages (not including appendices) between 2013 and 2018. Shorter documents mean less time for projects to be approved and greater transparency for the public.

However, controversial projects are likely to be dragged out for approval. The one- and two-year deadlines for putting together environmental assessments and EIS may still be extended “in consultation with the applicant”—although that’s no guarantee the agency will listen to the applicant. That leaves a concerning amount of leeway for red tape slowdowns.

The most exciting component of the NEPA reforms is the new right of applicants to petition for redress if these time lengths are not met. This could prove an essential counterbalance to the ability of environmental activists to demand courts halt a project.

However, the law missed its opportunity to make litigation less disruptive, as the general six-year statute of limitations is not shortened specifically for NEPA. Activists can still ask judges to halt projects up to six years after the NEPA review has finished, and agencies may be ordered to redo these documents if any minor fault is found—sometimes after projects have broken ground. The bill does nothing to assuage that uncertainty for developers.

Of course, the easiest way to reduce permitting time is to expand the number and type of projects eligible for categorical exclusions (CE), a type of project where no review is necessary because they typically have no significant impacts. Currently, agencies create their own lists of CEs, which multiplies effort across the executive branch, but the new law allows agencies to identify and adapt CEs from other agencies. While this is a good first step, it still requires much bureaucracy and documentation to identify CEs and consult with other agencies.

NEPA reforms are perhaps the most significant win for Republicans out of the debt ceiling compromise. While the law misses its opportunity to make litigation less disruptive, the one- and two-year timelines and page length limits are likely to speed up the permitting process for fossil fuel and renewable energy projects alike.