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Progressives need a plan for permitting reform of their own

FILE – Solar panels work near the small town of Milagro, Navarra Province, northern Spain, on Feb. 24, 2023. Renewable energy investors who lost subsidies promised by Spain are heading to a London court to try to claw back $125 million from the government — a decadelong dispute with ramifications for clean energy financing across…

There is a mountain of clean energy projects waiting to be built in the United States. Over 1,300 gigawatts of solar power, wind power and energy storage is awaiting permission to connect to the electric grid. That’s enough to more than double the U.S.’s existing power generation capacity, and enough to get the country on track for net-zero emissions by 2050.

But absent major policy changes, more than three-quarters of these planned power plants will never get built. That’s because energy projects in the United States face a long and complex permitting process before they can connect to the grid. Wind and solar farms wait on average 3.7 years for approval. Delays are even longer for transmission lines — needed to bring renewable electricity from the power plant to its point of use — which can take more than a decade to build. Imagine attending a Beyoncé concert in an arena with only one door, and you’ve got an idea of what it’s like to be a clean energy developer in America today.

Much (though not all) of this delay is due to misuse of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to consider environmental impacts. It has been central to protecting ecosystems and communities across the country, but has spawned what energy regulation expert David Hill calls “an entire cottage industry of consultants, lawyers and litigation” that extends far beyond the original intent of the law. In the past decade, NEPA-related lawsuits have been levelled against projects ranging from the Dakota Access Pipeline to the Obama Presidential Library.

This quagmire was the animating force behind Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) permitting reform proposal, which he offered as an amendment to a defense bill in December. The proposal would have set a time limit on environmental assessments, allowed cross-agency collaboration to streamline approval processes and granted the federal government greater authority to site power lines.

Despite some bipartisan support, Manchin’s amendment died in a 47-47 vote, having failed to win the backing of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. In a letter, these lawmakers cited valid concerns that expediting the approval process would undermine marginalized communities’ hard-won ability to defend themselves from potentially destructive developments. They also chafed at Manchin’s inclusion of automatic approval for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a controversial project in West Virginia that had been held up in court over environmental concerns.  

But permitting reform is once again on the table, and this time it has more momentum. On Feb. 28, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) introduced a new bill aimed at accelerating the review process. The bill, though not yet broadly acceptable to Democrats, seems to have fallen upon fertile terrain. Republicans, who eagerly pursue regulatory rollback whenever they are in power, see it as an opportunity to unshackle American energy at a time when energy scarcity is wracking much of the globe. Democrats, having authorized an unprecedented investment in clean energy in the Inflation Reduction Act, worry that regulatory delays may prevent their signature policy achievement from fulfilling its potential.

Progressives, though, seem unswayed. But with support for permitting reform mounting on both sides of the aisle, pure opposition is no longer a viable stance. The United States needs a progressive vision for permitting reform.

A brief digression: In Arizona, it is against the law to let a donkey sleep in a bathtub. That’s because in 1924, a flood engulfed an Arizona home while a donkey was asleep in the tub, sweeping the donkey away. A costly rescue mission ensued, and the Arizona legislature codified this odd precaution shortly thereafter. 

In summary, if a law exists, there is usually a reason. Today’s permitting process is a direct response to the inequity and environmental harm that historically defined the energy system. Until the late 1960s, there was little to deter project developers from polluting, discriminating or even destroying communities in order to build energy infrastructure. Projects like the Kinzua Dam, which violated a treaty and cost 600 Seneca people their homes, were more the rule than the exception during this time. Following the passage of a slew of environmental protections — including NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act — emissions of nearly every major air pollutant have fallen, and communities (although still battling against the forces of environmental injustice) have secured key safeguards to protect against unwanted developments, most recently exemplified by the defeat of two proposed petrochemical plants in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.”

An overly forceful approach to permitting reform could jeopardize this hard-won progress. Weakening the environmental review process and reducing opportunities for community input risks returning the country to an era when pollution and community disruption went unpunished. And with the latest permitting reform proposal both restricting agencies’ ability to conduct environmental reviews and offering less priority to clean energy projects, there is every reason for concern about excessive regulatory rollback.

It is possible to accelerate clean energy deployment without undermining local agency or environmental protections. New funding and personnel would allow regulatory agencies to process applications more quickly. Establishing new lines of coordination between agencies would limit the hoops developers have to jump through to secure a permit. And careful NEPA reform could forestall endless litigation. Importantly, these steps can speed up the process of permitting new renewable energy projects without meaningfully lowering the bar for environmental and social protections.

Permitting reform is both badly needed and increasingly likely to transpire. Progressives cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while their colleagues negotiate. It is time for them to offer their own plan for permitting reform — one that hews to the progressive ideals of justice, equity and environmental protection. Failing to do so will cede the conversation to a bipartisan majority that is less defensive of the many protections enshrined in the existing, if flawed, regulatory apparatus.

Reforming the energy permitting system is central to fulfilling progressives’ ambitious climate agenda. The rapid buildout of renewable energy that will be required to get to net-zero by 2050 is simply not possible in the current environment of queues and backlogs. But overcorrecting to a more slimmed-down process risks rolling back the clock on protections that took decades, if not centuries, to secure. Progressives can contribute to a permitting reform process that is both effective and equitable, but only if they come to the table with a plan.

Daniel Propp is the senior special assistant for policy at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA. He previously worked for Resources for the Future, an independent think tank, researching policy options for a just transition away from fossil fuels. He also served as a policy analyst for Camco Clean Energy, a clean energy investment firm focused on Sub-Saharan Africa.

Tags clean energy Climate change David Hill Energy Garret Graves Global warming Joe Manchin permitting permitting reform

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