What is the Joe Manchin permitting reform fight about?
The last several weeks of news in Congress have been dominated by a fight over Sen. Joe Manchin’s push for permitting reforms — which took a severe blow Tuesday when the West Virginia Democrat acknowledged his proposal lacked the support to get through the Senate.
Manchin’s request that his permitting reform proposal be removed from a must-pass government spending measure leaves a long-standing issue on the approval process for energy and infrastructure projects with an unclear future.
Powerful people — President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — had promised to make Manchin’s proposal law after he backed the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act last month, giving a huge victory to the White House that has elevated Democratic midterm prospects.
Yet the proposal itself ran into deep opposition from progressives, who believe Manchin’s measure would have contributed to climate change and pollution.
In the end, however, it was really Republicans in the Senate who doomed it. The GOP senators have long griped about the length of environmental reviews in the permitting process, but they argued Manchin’s measure didn’t go far enough.
They also felt burned by the passage of the summer legislative package, which passed under an arcane budgetary process that prevented a GOP filibuster. Its passage was made possible by Manchin, who represents an otherwise deep-red state, and many in the GOP wanted revenge.
It was an unusual storyline in Washington. Republicans angered by a centrist Democrat provided a political gift to House progressives, who would have faced a tough decision if Manchin’s bill had cleared the Senate on a must-pass measure to prevent a government shutdown.
Permitting reform has long been an issue the GOP has wanted to do work on.
The administration of former President Trump estimated that it can take an average of 4.5 years for an environmental review to wrap up, something that Manchin and many Republicans have said is much too long.
They say that this prevents the country from having sufficient energy infrastructure. Manchin proposed a series of “reforms” aimed at shortening that process.
Manchin and his backers argue that the energy approval needs to be changed so that the country can more speedily build pipelines, wind turbines, solar farms, natural gas export terminals, nuclear plants, electricity transmission lines and more.
But permitting reform is controversial, as many environmentalists see long reviews as a method to ensure that the full scope of a project’s environmental impacts are evaluated.
Environmental justice advocates also say that the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates environmental reviews, is essentially a civil rights law, protecting communities of color from facing even greater pollution burdens and allowing them to give input on projects in their neighborhoods.
While Manchin’s proposal wouldn’t explicitly get rid of any specific protections, progressives fear that truncated reviews could hamper the input process.
And Manchin’s Democratic backers argue that permitting reforms would also benefit renewable energy projects and say the effort could help speed the energy transition by providing support for new green energy infrastructure.
What is Manchin proposing, exactly?
The legislation contains several provisions that are aimed at speeding up the permitting system.
For one, it shortens the timeline for environmental reviews, requiring agencies to put together a schedule under which environmental inspections for major energy projects would average two years. Reviews for minor projects would average one year.
The legislation also requires the president, for 10 years, to maintain a list of 25 priority projects to be expedited.
For the first seven years, this list would need to include six clean energy projects; four mining or minerals projects; five fossil or biofuel production, processing, transport or storage projects; two electric transmission projects; one hydrogen energy project; and two projects in which technology is used to capture carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning or other emitting entities.
Manchin’s proposal also gives the federal government greater authority over electric transmission lines. Specifically, it enables the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to direct the construction of transmission lines that are deemed to be in the national interest.
Former FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee (R) told The Hill in an interview that it’s not totally clear whether FERC would actually use its new transmission authorities, as commission members may object to overriding state objections.
“On the one hand, it would definitely help get transmission built because you can circumvent some of the state and local opposition that is at the core of what makes it difficult to build transmission, but I think FERC is trying really, really hard to work hand-in-glove with the states,” Chatterjee said.
Perhaps most controversially of all, the legislation directs federal agencies to issue approvals needed for the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. This pipeline would carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and led directly to Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) opposition.
What might happen next
Whether there’s a future for permitting reform, and what that future might be, is uncertain.
Negotiations may prove difficult, as any changes made to get Republicans on board risks alienating additional Democrats.
Lawmakers may try to attach some iteration of the permitting reform push to the National Defense Authorization Act, or other must-pass legislation. But some lawmakers may oppose this on procedural grounds, saying that the defense bill should stick to defense spending.
It’s also possible to take up as a standalone, but that could run into similar hurdles if it doesn’t have 60 backers.
In the next term, Republicans may try to push their own version of permitting reform if they take back the majority, but getting 10 Democratic votes for a Republican package would also be a difficult task.