US climate goals are achievable — if we can get the permits
With President Biden signing the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act in August, policymakers have enacted four major laws since 2020 that, together, have great potential to put our nation on a path to seriously address climate change and achieve the global goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The success of these measures, however, hinges on whether the president and Congress will reform the onerous permitting process that otherwise will present huge regulatory, legal and structural roadblocks to building a new clean energy infrastructure. Without permitting reform, projects will be delayed for years, costs will skyrocket and billions in taxpayer dollars will be wasted — leaving our efforts to implement the recent historic clean energy investments to wither on the vine.
The issue could not be timelier because we are racing against the clock. We need to make significant progress by 2030 and reach our goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Without significant changes, we will almost certainly miss our emission reduction targets.
In the past, climate policy focused on making fossil fuels more expensive. Now, climate policy must pivot to making clean energy cheap. In the past, environmentalists used the permitting process to delay or prevent projects for traditional energy sources from coming online. Now, the best climate strategy is to reform the process and build lots of new clean energy infrastructure quickly — which we can do while continuing to safeguard our environment.
Consider what the four laws could accomplish. First, the bipartisan Energy Act of 2020 authorized new programs and policies to advance the next generation of clean energy technologies. Second, the bipartisan infrastructure bill of 2021 provided billions for those programs and established a new commercialization arm for clean technologies at the Energy Department.
Third, policymakers tucked a suite of important new energy and climate measures on a bipartisan basis into the CHIPS and Science Act. And fourth, the Inflation Reduction Act provided an unprecedented $400 billion in new funding to deploy the next generation of clean energy projects.
All told, these investments could put the nation on the path to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40 percent by 2030 and reinstate America as the global leader on climate.
The impact of these measures, however, will depend heavily on permitting reform, which Democratic leaders say they plan to bring before Congress in the coming weeks.
Our permitting system will unnecessarily delay these new energy projects by years while adding billions in unnecessary consumer and business costs. New energy infrastructure of all kinds — solar and wind, powerlines, pipelines for natural gas to displace coal and hydrogen to decarbonize natural gas, and facilities to capture, move and store carbon dioxide — face massive hurdles through onerous and redundant federal regulatory procedures, along with burdensome and seemingly endless legal challenges. Completing an environmental impact statement through the National Environmental Policy Act takes an average of four and half years and can cost millions. These burdens not only fall on fossil fuel projects but also on renewable energy projects, which now vastly outnumber the fossil fuel projects caught up in NEPA review at the Energy Department.
Electric transmission lines are a core backbone of a clean energy economy and the poster child of regulatory and permitting dysfunction. Big, high-capacity lines that can bring wind and solar energy from remote locations to more heavily populated areas routinely take more than a decade to build and often fail to secure their necessary permits.
Fortunately, we can make common-sense reforms that do not sacrifice environmental outcomes but speed up needed projects, reduce costs and accelerate the benefits of a cleaner infrastructure. Policymakers should shorten timelines for approving federal permits, place reasonable limits on litigation and force more coordination among federal agencies with a role in approving permits.
Among other specific steps, policymakers should set timelines for completing and reviewing environmental impact statements for all infrastructure projects. Congress should also include provisions that would empower the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the siting authority for crucial electricity transmission projects that right now rarely get built because of the lengthy and costly approval process. This FERC authority would be similar to its current siting of natural gas pipelines.
Congress should expand One Federal Decision, a process that establishes a lead federal agency for the environmental review of transportation projects, to all infrastructure projects. They also should include more projects in FAST-41, a project of the FAST Act of 2015, which has reduced permitting timelines for certain infrastructure projects and capitalize on NEPA provisions that allow for “categorical exclusions” for certain activities.
In addition, policymakers should ensure that federal agencies have the necessary resources to efficiently review a higher number of projects. And those agencies should engage early with local communities to identify and resolve any issues with proposed projects.
The nation can meet its climate objectives, but we must move quickly. By reforming the permitting process, we can create a dynamic, cheaper clean energy economy in the coming years and ensure that America remains globally competitive into the next century.
Sasha Mackler is executive director of the Energy Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center.