What allows reform? Here is a primer for accelerating energy projects – both clean and fossil fuels

The construction of a new interstate power line near Phoenix was the latest symbol in the debate over federal permit reform.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Ten West Link transmission line last month, Vice President Kamala Harris praised the project for what it means to combat climate change. “To create our clean energy future,” she said, “we must build thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines across our country.”

But the line, which when completed will stretch 125 miles between Arizona and California, is also a reminder of how difficult it is to build large energy projects. Developers Ten West Link submitted their original application to the federal government in 2015 for a project that would not be fully operational until 2025, and much of that time was spent waiting for regulatory approval.

“We sent a man to the moon smaller than that,” US Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said of Ten West Link this week at a committee hearing. “Does this sound like a healthy system of permits and regulation to anyone?”

Crenshaw and other newly elected Republicans in Congress say that regulatory approval of new energy projects takes too long and is too easily thwarted by opponents. Many Democrats agree, saying that lengthy environmental reviews are also slowing down clean energy projects needed to tackle climate change.

In this sense, resolving reforms may be a rare area in which the parties can come together.

But we’ve been here before. The previous proposals, most recently in December from Senator Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), were not disclosed due to serious gaps in the parties’ views on which projects should take precedence and fears among progressive groups that the legislation would do more harm. than good. .

The debate highlights that the appearance of common ground is sometimes a thin layer that hides underlying differences.

Yet clean energy business leaders argue that the benefits of streamlining the federal permitting process will outweigh the climate damage.

“One of my favorite questions is that we have to create something,” said Jason Grumet, newly appointed CEO of the Clean Energy Association of America, a clean energy business group, speaking recently at a forum hosted by Resources for future.” non-profit research organization in the field of energy.

He said complex clean energy project approval processes threaten to undermine President Joe Biden’s signed climate change bill, the Inflation Reduction Act.

“If we don’t really think honestly about the timing, we will not only not be able to spend this money, but fundamentally we will not be able to use it in the way that is necessary to solve the climate problem,” Grume. said.

Basically, he says that the federal government needs to allow the rapid expansion of interstate transmission lines that are needed to bring electricity from new wind and solar farms. Most solar and wind projects receive state and local permits.

The Ten West project in Arizona is an example of how long it takes for a company to get federal approval and how a thorough process has helped to solve the problems associated with harming sensitive areas. An inspection by the Bureau of Land Management resulted in the line being re-routed to avoid the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and tribal lands.

And this check could have taken much less time if the developer had realized the possibility of objections and proposed a different route from the very beginning, Dustin Mulvaney, a professor at San Jose State University, said in an article for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The American Petroleum Institute has other concerns about the slow pace of federal approvals. This month, the fossil fuels business group sent a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality criticizing the Biden administration’s push to account for greenhouse gas emissions when considering federal permits for pipelines and other energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act. (NEPA).

“The entire energy industry — from oil and natural gas to renewables — needs consistency and credibility in applying NEPA over the long term to develop, build and operate projects that will last longer than the presidential administration,” the letter said.

If you remove the big differences in the types of projects that the two business groups support, they speak of the same frustrations. They believe that compliance with NEPA, the founding environmental law passed in 1970, has evolved in a way that unnecessarily empowers project opponents.

But the idea of ​​limiting the public’s ability to object to permits is anathema to much of the environmental movement, including environmental justice advocates.

Basav Sen, director of the climate justice project at the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, said it was “a bit of a straw” to say that projects are being delayed because of community-level meetings. The bigger problem, he says, is that staffing shortages at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and the Army Corps of Engineers are causing permit processing to take longer, and that hiring more people can help reduce delays.

For example, inadequate staffing at the EPA alone contributed to a record low number of enforcement actions and several breaches of regulatory deadlines at the agency last year, with one former employee saying department employees are “working to death.”

Despite these opposing views, there has long been precedent in Congress where lawmakers have made concessions to the fossil fuel industry as a bargaining chip to promote clean energy. Congress did this by passing the Inflation Reduction Act last year, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act in 2021, and almost every major energy bill in the last few decades.

Now the question, which does not have a clear answer, is whether permissive reform will follow the same pattern.

More benefit than harm

Because permit reform can take many different paths, it will be helpful to clarify what she meant by Manchin’s proposal, which has so far not received enough support to pass in the US Senate.

Manchin first published the proposal, called the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022, in September.

“It doesn’t matter what you want to build, whether it’s pipelines or hydroelectric dams, more often than not it takes too long and adds to the cost,” he said at the time.

He also noted that the opposition came from Republican leaders in the Senate and people from his own party, whom he called “the far left.”

“I have never seen stranger partners than Bernie Sanders and extreme liberals supporting the Republican leadership,” he said.

Here are some of the things the bill was supposed to do:

  • Set a two-year target for NEPA audits for major energy and natural resource projects that require a full environmental impact report and audits from more than one federal agency.
  • Set a 150-day statute of limitations for challenging permits in court and require courts to set an accelerated schedule of no more than 180 days for federal agencies to take action in response to permit decisions.
  • It was required that the president identify certain energy and mineral projects as strategically important to the country, which would lead to accelerated review of these projects by regulators. The list should include a set of projects, including a minimum number of projects in fossil fuels, carbon capture, and biofuels, among other categories.
  • Restrictions have been placed on the ability of state and tribal governments to challenge projects under the Clean Water Act.
  • Giving the federal government additional authority to approve interstate transmission lines when the Secretary of Energy believes the project is in the national interest.
  • Approval was needed for the Mountain Valley Gas Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that would run from West Virginia to Virginia, whose construction was delayed by a variety of legal and regulatory issues.

“Despite some provisions to promote fossil fuels, the bill as a whole was a big step forward in the area of ​​clean energy,” said Rob Gramlich, founder of Grid Strategies, a clean energy advocacy group focused on permitting issues. to interstate power lines.

“Overall, good was better than bad,” he said.

He bases this view on the idea that the demand for fossil fuels may decline, so new infrastructure such as pipelines will not be used at full capacity for their entire lifespan.

At the same time, he believes that accelerating the process of building interstate transmission lines will lead to wide-ranging benefits from the transition to clean energy, as new wind and solar projects will be able to deliver electricity.

But left-wing politicians’ concerns about the bill ultimately didn’t matter much because it was largely Republican opposition that prevented the law from passing, he said. Republicans felt that the bill did not help fossil fuels enough.

Permissive reform could ‘annoy the same people again’

While Republican opposition played a big role in the failure of Manchin’s proposal last year, objections from environmental justice groups were a key part of the debate then and now.

At the heart of these concerns is Manchin’s desire to limit the use of NEPA, which requires federal agencies to take into account the cumulative impact of an energy project on society and make this information public.

Sen of the Policy Research Institute said that because low-income households and people of color live disproportionately close to industries, putting time limits on this screening process could prevent these communities from participating in project decisions that could ultimately affect them. including clean energy projects.

“Even when you’re building renewable energy,” he said, “you have to do it in a way that respects environmental concerns and social justice interests.”

More broadly, proponents see some familiar and troubling themes in the push to allow reform, even for clean energy projects.

“A reform resolution to me is just like, ‘Oh, we’re going to just fuck the same people again, but now we’re going to do it by building power lines to their property instead of fossil fuel pipelines,’” John said. Farrell, co-director of the Local Self-Reliance Institute, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group.

He said the bigger problem is that communities have little power when big companies want to build projects, and that the solution is not to reduce that power.

Reporter Marianne Lavelle contributed to this story.

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