The only thing standing between us and our affordable, clean energy future is a completely broken permitting process and the road to breaking through congressional gridlock lies in addressing three controversies that helped delay legislative action earlier this year.
Specifically, pushing through permitting reform during Congress’ lame-duck session requires resolving controversies over how much authority to give the federal government to site new electric transmission lines and allocate costs among beneficiaries, which types of projects should be covered and whether reforms will strengthen or weaken environmental justice.
Permitting reform is important for at least two reasons. First, it would enable both Republicans and Democrats to achieve some of their longstanding goals on energy policy, including energy affordability and reliability. Second, it would enable the nation to make significant progress on climate change by speeding up clean energy projects.
In essence, permitting reform is the missing piece, the sine qua non, of our national energy policy.
Over the last two years, policymakers have enacted four major laws to spur clean energy technology by authorizing new programs and policies and providing hundreds of billions of dollars to fund new projects. If those four bills — the 2020 bipartisan Energy Act, 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, 2022 bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act — deliver on their potential, they would put the nation on course to greater energy independence and make significant progress towards net-zero emissions by 2050.
What stands in the way? An outdated permitting process that delays projects for years, raises costs for businesses and households, jeopardizes our energy reliability and affordability, threatens national security and limits economic growth and competitiveness.
For decades, Republicans (and some Democrats) have pushed for reform, arguing that the process creates unnecessary delays and imposes unnecessary costs on traditional energy projects. Some Democrats welcomed the delays out of concern that such projects set back efforts to address climate change.
Now, permitting reform is something that both parties can support. That’s because addressing climate change is less about blocking traditional energy projects and more about facilitating clean energy projects — everything from solar and wind to new powerlines, to advanced nuclear, to decarbonized natural gas, to geothermal, to new facilities to capture, move and store carbon dioxide. So, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, and whether you care about energy costs, energy independence, energy innovation or greenhouse gas emissions, permitting reform helps you achieve your goals.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, have introduced separate reform bills that overlap in key ways. Each would shorten the time for federal agencies to review projects, cover such forms of energy as critical minerals, nuclear, hydrogen, fossil fuels, electric transmission, renewables and carbon capture, sequestration, storage and removal and provide exclusions from review for certain well-understood categories of projects in order to speed new infrastructure while cutting costs. Just as important, both senators have expressed interest in negotiating a compromise measure.
Based on how efforts to attach permitting reform to a must-pass spending measure fell apart earlier this fall, however, negotiators must resolve three controversies if they hope to enact a final bill.
- First, the fate of electric transmission lines. How much authority should the federal government have to site new lines and allocate costs among beneficiaries? Greater federal authority over interstate lines makes sense, but some lawmakers want to leave power in the hands of states and localities. Federal authority, however, will prove important to secure the votes of those who are most committed to addressing climate change, because current transmission delays threaten to reduce the emissions benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act by 80 percent. The path forward is to narrow that new federal authority to only the big, high-voltage, interstate lines.
- Second, the scope of permitting reform. While the Manchin and Capito proposals take an all-of-the-above approach, others want to exclude fossil fuel projects. The fact is, however, that both Manchin and Republican lawmakers will demand all-of-the-above permitting improvements. Besides, those who oppose fossil fuel projects need not worry — 77 percent of new electricity production last year came solely from wind and solar, and that’s before any of the Inflation Reduction Act’s new incentives for clean energy took effect. The market has already decided: The nation will decarbonize; the only question is how quickly.
- Third, the status of environmental justice. Will faster permitting mean less input by local communities affected by new projects? Clean energy projects have the potential to help localities by creating jobs, spurring economic growth, reducing pollution and improving quality of life. That’s why permitting reform should support efforts to engage communities early in the process to secure their support.
Through four major bills, policymakers have unleashed unprecedented funding for new energy innovation. Now, they must remove the stumbling blocks to using that money to achieve their energy-related goals.
Xan Fishman is director of energy policy and carbon management at the Bipartisan Policy Center.