In the latest dramatic installment from a narrowly-controlled Congress, Senator Joe Manchin almost became an unlikely climate savior by advocating for a now-rejected plan to reform the approval process for energy and infrastructure projects.
During negotiations over the Inflation Reduction Act, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made a secondary agreement with Sen. Joe Manchin on a plan to streamline the permitting and approval process for energy and infrastructure projects. Permit reform has been discussed in both parties for years, and is an important step in building up green energy. Earlier this month, Senate Democrats announced a plan to add permit reform to this year’s government funding bill. Unfortunately, they were unable to assemble enough bipartisan support to overcome the filibuster.
Despite its bipartisan origins, Republicans in both houses see tanking permit reform as a way to get revenge on Manchin for his Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) support. The GOP’s opposition to evidence-based policy is unsurprising, but their public pettiness is a rare show of honesty. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told Politico that “there’s not a lot of sympathy on our side to provide Sen. Manchin a reward.” If Congress is able to get this done, the rewards will not flow to Manchin, but to the environment and economy.
One of the permit reform bill’s main targets is NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA was originally signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970. Under NEPA, most building projects have to undergo a review process. Over the decades, this review process has become increasingly burdensome, with NEPA reviews taking up to 5 years and over 600 pages to complete. In a sad twist, America’s marquee environmental law has become one of the environment’s largest threats. A recent report from the Institute for Progress found that NEPA is actively impeding our transition to clean energy because it “drags clean energy projects out for years and generates uncertainty that stops other projects from ever getting off the ground.” Manchin’s bill would set maximum review timetables and pursue other streamlining reforms.
In an ideal world, NEPA would be used to prevent dangerous coal and oil projects from continuing. However, only 15% of NEPA reviews are fossil fuel projects. NEPA does not protect the environment. Instead, it simply protects the status quo. The Atlantic’s Jersualem Demsas explored NEPA’s weaponization against climate-friendly projects in an article published earlier this year. Wealthy homeowners frequently use NEPA lawsuits to block new housing development and renewable infrastructure. In California alone, NEPA lawsuits have delayed or blocked solar farms, infill housing, and rail expansions. Demsas concluded that NEPA and similar laws “have provided a means for disgruntled locals to pile on delays to projects they don’t like, whether or not they have a legitimate environmental complaint.” More green energy, denser housing, and expanded public transit are all vital for a climate-friendly future and a cornerstone of the Biden Administration’s supply-side progressivism. In its current state, NEPA only slows those developments. Reforms to this law in a permitting bill are integral to achieve a healthier climate.
A sizable group of Democrats in both houses have also announced their opposition to reforming the permitting process. While few have outright said they would vote against the plan if it was attached to upcoming budget or defense spending legislation, dozens signed on to a letter opposing attempts to “undermine the law in the name of reform.” Weakening environmental laws to save the environment can seem counterintuitive, and it’s understandable that many Democrats don’t want to be seen as gutting environmental protections. On this issue, politics and policy diverge. NEPA and similar laws have to be reformed to fully achieve Democratic priorities.
One piece of legislation that is greatly affected by the permitting process is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was signed into law in November 2021. The bill grabbed headlines for its historic investments in transportation, clean water, and broadband access. A provision that received less fanfare was the permanent authorization of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, which is tasked with streamlining the permit approval process. The executive director of that council, Christine Harada, recently spoke with the Bipartisan Policy Center about her efforts to fast-track green energy projects. The IIJA is not alone. A recent research report from the Progressive Policy Institute finds that provisions of the CHIPS and Science and Inflation Reduction Acts are also jeopardized by the permitting process. A separate study by Princeton University found that up to 80% of the IRA’s emissions reductions won’t occur without streamlined permitting. Most importantly, unnecessary red tape means that congressional spending doesn’t go as far as it should, and significantly delays when the public sees the benefits of major government programs.
This was the case with the The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), President Obama’s stimulus package for the 2008 recession. Recovery bills are supposed to quickly inject money into the economy to stave off a prolonged depression. To help achieve this, ARRA included over $105 billion in infrastructure spending and almost $30 billion for renewable energy research to create jobs in those sectors. These efforts quickly ran aground. The Progressive Policy Institute’s Jeremiah Johnson finds that “projects in ARRA were subject to more than 192,000 NEPA reviews… While those reviews were ongoing, projects could not begin and economic stimulus effectively could not take place.” America did not recover from 2008 for almost six years. Under NEPA, the average project is approved in five years.
President Biden and Democratic leadership are right to want reform for this disastrous system. While Manchin’s bill is now off the table, compromise deals are in the pipeline. Any bipartisan progress on reforming the permitting system is a welcome development. Our government cannot continue being hobbled by itself.
Alex Moskovitz is a sophomore CLEG major in the School of Public Affairs. He is a Managing Editor for the American Agora.