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Semiconductor industry: To Hell with the environment, start building fabs already

Otherwise Uncle Sam risks the whole purpose of the CHIPS Act

The semiconductor industry is seeking to bypass US environmental protection rules to speed up fab construction, warning US government that delays derail the purpose of the CHIPS Act; to outpace China in technology.

The disclosure comes in a document [PDF] filed online by the US Department of Commerce last year that contains responses from the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) to a Request for Information (RFI) from the CHIPS Program Office (CPO) within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

NIST issued RFIs last year for public input on two of the programs authorized under the US CHIPS Act.

In it, the SIA urges that any semiconductor projects resulting from the CHIPS for America Fund should be implemented "without regulatory delay" and that the CPO and Biden administration as a whole should address any barriers that could impede CHIPS projects.

The kind of set backs SIA has in mind are that projects receiving CHIPS Act funding will be subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and this might lead to "significant delays in the disbursement of CHIPS funds" resulting in holdups to the construction and operation of new chip-making infrastructure.

NEPA requires federal agencies to give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major projects and submit environmental assessments and impact statements.

The way to avoid such delays is for the CPO to work to provide "a categorical exclusion for CHIPS projects based on criteria developed after consultation with affected stakeholders," the SIA suggests.

At minimum, the SIA says the Department of Commerce should have the ability to "streamline and expedite" reviews to the greatest extent possible by utilizing tools under the Permitting Action Plan, for example. The latter is aimed at making environmental review and permit processes more efficient and transparent, and shaped by "early and meaningful public input."

Delays due to "burdensome reviews" would put at risk the economic, supply chain, and national security benefits that are the very purpose of the CHIPS Act, the SIA claims in its response.

This submission from SIA underscores the tensions in Washington between the goals of protecting the environment and that of ensuring the US retains its technological lead against a rising China.

An exemption from environmental planning regulations for federally funded chip projects could prove damaging for the Biden administration as the semiconductor industry is both polluting and has a huge carbon footprint.

Not only does the construction of semiconductor fabs call for large amounts of concrete, a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, but the facilities themselves consume lots of electricity and water in operation, and generate copious amounts of waste, as detailed in a report by The Guardian newspaper in late 2021.

The SIA has today published a statement welcoming the release by the Department of Commerce of a Notice of Funding Opportunity for the CHIPS Act, a procedural step that sets in motion the process for companies to apply for manufacturing grants.

"We stand ready to work with Commerce Secretary Raimondo and leaders in the Commerce Department’s CHIPS Office to ensure the new law is implemented effectively, efficiently, and expeditiously," SIA president and CEO John Neuffer said in the statement. ®

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