The unsexy but incredibly powerful key to fight climate change: Reform permitting

The unsexy but incredibly powerful key to fight climate change: Reform permitting
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A “code red for humanity,” as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests in their August report sounds pretty urgent, right? The problem is we can’t build any of the things we need fast enough today.  

It is clear that we need to transition to a clean energy economy. The IPCC calls for rapid global emissions reductions and says to get there we need a heck of a lot of new clean energy. The U.S. doesn’t control the rest of the world, but we should certainly lead. If you follow the report’s recommendations, we are looking at the largest construction project in U.S. history.

Unprecedented construction rates are required for the buildout of lower carbon energy infrastructure, including long distance transmission lines, cleaner power plants, pipelines for low carbon fuels and electric vehicle charging stations. But right now, we can only reduce carbon dioxide emissions as fast as we are able to permit the projects needed to do so.

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Think of a project permit like a driver’s license: You need a permit to build like you need a license to drive. But what if after you took driver's ed, passed the course and applied for your license, you still had to wait a few years before you could drive? That’s what project developers are dealing with. And while we should be putting the pedal to the metal to address climate change, energy projects in the U.S. can take years or even decades to be completed between the siting, permitting and construction processes. One report found that if we develop energy infrastructure the way we always have, with long timelines and many delays, we won’t get to net zero by mid-century — and may not even make it halfway. 

Not only is the project permitting process slow, but it has been misused to block development and investment in critical projects, and often results in energy projects getting sued to death. Add some NIMBYism — “not in my back yard” opposition — to the mix, and it is becoming nearly impossible to build anything in America.  This isn’t just for traditional energy like oil and gas or nuclear energy — even wind and solar projects have been stalled and killed based on aesthetics and property values using the stale permitting process. 

Reforming the environmental approvals and permitting process is the unsexy, yet incredibly powerful key to fighting climate change. For example, the bipartisan infrastructure bill that is due for a vote any day now in Congress is being called a down payment on the infrastructure needed for a low-carbon economy. But without the ability to actually build, that investment would be squandered. 

The encouraging news is that the infrastructure bill includes some updates to the permitting process to speed up the timelines for larger infrastructure projects. These enhancements focus on simple, common-sense changes like expediting review timelines, eliminating duplicative processes and clarifying government roles when conducting reviews. 

If we are to truly “build back better,” or build faster and cleaner, we need to think bigger. The transition to a clean energy economy will require transformational changes to our planning, siting and permitting processes, and there is a roadmap to get there. 

Earlier this year I participated in a bipartisan group of policymakers, academics and think tanks that collaborated on a report called “Building Cleaner, Faster” that recommends some critical paths to success that should be considered for future rulemaking. The recommendations include immediate approvals for clean energy projects with well-understood impacts and benefits, accelerated approvals for clean energy projects that may have unique or local impacts, accelerated legal dispute resolution and conformance of local and state systems with the federal framework.

Future reforms should also consider prioritizing projects that significantly reduce emissions, encourage siting of projects in areas that will minimize environmental impact and maximize economic benefit, such as using a decommissioned fossil fuel site as a location for a clean energy project. We can also focus on shifting energy projects from being seen as a burden on communities to an opportunity. Communities should be able to raise their hands for these projects, so everyone can benefit from clean, reliable and affordable energy. Clean energy projects can provide cleaner air and water for communities, more accessible and affordable energy, and good paying jobs. And quicker delivery will mean quicker results. 

The key point to remember is that any reform for streamlining the permitting process should not and will not compromise environmental stewardship or the public’s opportunity to be involved. 

We are all in this together, and no matter your level of urgency one thing is clear: We need to get building — so let’s get permitting. 

Jena Lococo is a program manager at clean energy policy non-profit ClearPath,, where she focuses on regulatory reform issues and enabling quicker deployment of clean energy technology. Lococo is a public voices fellow on the climate crisis with the Op-ed Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.