Sean SpeerThe recent decision on Keystone XL offers hope for restoring common sense to the heavy-handed bureaucratic approval process for the infrastructure projects needed to keep the economy humming.

By Sean Speer, Feb. 1, 2017

We used to build things quickly in North America.

The Empire State Building was constructed in one year and 45 days.

The Pentagon was built in 16 months.

The CN Tower only took 40 months.

These were large, complex projects and yet we still found a way to get them done fast.

But that was then. Now even simple projects are regularly tied up in bureaucratic red tape for years.

Our capacity to build the modern infrastructure North American society needs to keep the economy growing, transport our energy resources to markets, and get us to our families and communities, has weakened under the weight of the administrative state.

There’s much not to like about U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric.

But his recent revival of the Keystone XL pipeline is a positive sign.

If he can restore common sense and human judgment to the impersonal and unaccountable regulatory system, it will be an important step for self-governance.

Of course, major projects ought to undergo independent reviews to ensure environmental protections, health and safety standards, and respect for private property and community concerns.

There’s much not to like about U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric. But his recent revival of the Keystone XL pipeline is a positive sign.

No one would contest these basic expectations.

But surely we’ve gone too far.

The system is now marked by seemingly endless consultations, ongoing study, and general box-checking. We’ve become paralyzed by rules and process.

Neither Canada nor the United States is immune to the sclerosis of modern government.

Consider the fate of the Northern Gateway pipeline project which involved $8 billion in capital expenditures, thousands of potential jobs, and considerable benefits for affected Indigenous communities.

The project was conceived in the mid-2000s, officially submitted to the National Energy Board in 2006, and ultimately rejected nearly 10 years later.

Or consider the deepening of Charleston harbour in South Carolina which was first contemplated in 1999 in order to better compete with wider and large ports around the world and for which federal approval was only granted this past September.

Veteran columnist George Will rightly described this decade-and-a-half delay as symptomatic of a broader “economic enfeeblement”.

The list of similar projects entangled in red tape on both sides of the border goes on and on.

Progress has been supplanted by inaction.

Inexplicable delays have become normalized.

That these projects languish not only represents missed economic opportunity, it reflects a deeper governance problem.

Legal scholar Philip K. Howard has written that “government’s inability to make critical choices should be a national scandal.” He’s not far from the truth.

Which brings us to Trump's recent decision on the Keystone pipeline.

The project was extensively reviewed for more than six years and determined to have no undue environmental effects, including no substantive change to greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet it languished until the previous Obama administration ultimately rejected it.

Review and consultation can’t become ends in themselves or substitutes for democratic decision-making by representative government.

Notwithstanding his serious flaws, Trump may therefore be a solution to this problem.

He doesn’t seem prepared to accept the bureaucratic red tape and the weight of the administrative state that we’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to in North America.

That’s not a bad thing.

Let’s hope the president’s executive order on Keystone signals a new way of thinking about developing our natural resources in particular, and building infrastructure more generally.

Speer is a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute

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