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GOP killed permitting reform — giving Democrats a new campaign issue

Over the last two years, Congress has passed a series of landmark bills that together fund more than $500 billion in clean energy investment, by far the largest ever enacted. More importantly, generous tax incentives can spur many trillions in direct private sector investments, creating a powerhouse U.S. advanced energy sector. Yet, right now, a broken U.S. energy permitting system short circuits thousands of major projects, imposing tremendously high costs in time and money to build clean infrastructure projects, if they get built at all.

Congress had an opportunity to fix this roadblock through a permitting reform bill, but despite claiming to support reform, Senate Republicans effectively killed the measure in a nakedly political effort to deny Democrats a popular policy win. Democrats should turn the tables on the GOP, making the economic and climate costs of this hypocritical action a major campaign issue in the upcoming midterm elections.

Ironically, in the name of environmental protection, a perverse process has developed over decades whereby often unnecessary and duplicative government reviews and nuisance lawsuits have pushed average time for permitting to 4.3 years for electricity transmission, 3.5 years for pipelines and 2.7 years for renewable energy generation projects. In the mid-Atlantic and near-Ohio valley alone, more than 2,500 projects are awaiting approval, 95 percent of which involve renewable energy. In fact, a new Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) report finds that without extensive permitting and regulatory reforms, large projected economic benefits and emissions reductions from recent laws would be substantially limited, and fail to meet policy goals. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), with the backing of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), introduced legislation that would set 1 and 2-year targets for reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, improve coordination between multiple agencies on complicated reviews, expand faster types of review, and allow the president to create a list of high-priority energy projects across traditional and clean energy categories.

Historically, however, it has been Republicans who deserve credit for advocating these reforms. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has introduced legislation similar to Manchin’s proposal for many years. Under the Trump administration, slightly more effective coordination of reviews between agencies took place under a system called “One Federal Decision” but it was purposely mixed with draconian changes to undermine environmental rules. The Manchin-Schumer proposal would avoid these pitfalls.

Crucially, the Manchin bill would make building transmission lines much easier, enabling renewable energy to be generated where it is cheapest and consumed where it is needed. The pending bill would also streamline process requirements for clean water certifications and lay the groundwork for innovative pipelines for clean hydrogen.

It is true that 77 House Democrats objected to considering the bill as part of the government funding measure, as have a few senators. Such misguided liberal opposition misses the forest for the trees. The current regulatory system is tilted toward the status quo of fossil energy, while the fight against climate change will require rapid, far-reaching clean energy generation and transmission buildouts that can only be accomplished through expedited permitting.

Thankfully, thoughtful climate hawks in the House and Senate, including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), came out in support of the deal. President Biden, too, favored the legislation, calling it an “important step forward” to “unlock the potential” of clean energy projects.

But Republicans killed the measure last week. And a counterproposal, supported by most Senate Republicans, is heavily weighted toward traditional energy development and would undermine various other environmental rules while avoiding explicit reforms for renewables and transmission, at all. This is economically short-sighted, as the pending permitting reform would create millions of new jobscut consumer energy costs and create a powerful new sector of the American economy that can be a driver of exports, as well.

Manchin pointed to the security risks of the Republican blockage, noting that “a failed vote on something as critical as comprehensive permitting reform only serves to embolden leaders like [Russia President Vladimir] Putin who wish to see America fail,” another potentially potent line of political attack for Democrats.

Several respected studies find the U.S. can’t meet the economic promise or climate goals of these newly passed clean energy laws without comprehensive permitting reform. Yet, right of center economic hawks who claim to be against excessive regulations are preventing these economic benefits. This amounts to rank hypocrisy by Republicans, risking U.S. economic growth as well as climate protection solely for political reasons.

Republicans and Democrats should support pending legislation if another attempt at passage of Manchin’s permitting reform proposals occurs as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. If that proves impossible, then Democrats must make permitting reform a prominent economic, security and climate issue in November’s election. That, in turn, could lead to passage during a “lame duck” session after Election Day. Otherwise, Congress risks undermining much of the good work it has done the last two years.

Paul Bledsoe is strategic adviser with the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.

Elan Sykes is an energy policy analyst at PPI and previously worked at the Climate Leadership Council.

Tags Chuck Schumer Climate change Energy Joe Manchin permitting reform Rob Portman

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