A U.S. push to speed up environmental inspections of power lines, gas pipelines and other energy infrastructure is facing resistance in Congress, with some lawmakers worried about enabling fossil fuel production, even as the legislation also supports a cleaner grid.
Sen. Joe Manchin won a promise to reform the energy permit in exchange for his vote on the Democrats’ $700 billion climate and tax bill he passed last month. Congress is likely to debate possible reforms in September.
The pace of review under U.S. environmental laws, and the litigation that often follows, has long frustrated oil and gas pipeline companies. A government survey found that between 2010 and 2018, the median time to complete a federal environmental review was 3.5 years.
However, regulatory hurdles also plague developers of carbon-free energy sources such as solar and wind farms. Projects such as new long-distance transmission lines are critical to delivering electricity to markets.
Manchin is published Wish list includes a maximum two-year permitting review for major projects, a statute of limitations for judicial challenges to regulatory approvals, and enhanced federal permitting authority for interstate power lines that currently require approval from a patchwork of states in their path.
It also explicitly calls for completion Mountain valley pipeline, a 300-mile project designed to move shale gas from Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, which is languishing in the courts.
Clean energy advocates say there is an urgent need to reform the way power lines are permitted. Gregory Wetstone, executive director of the American Renewable Energy Council, compared the construction of interstate power lines to the construction of the interstate highway system decades ago.
“We don’t have that ability to build an interstate transmission line.” If we tried to build our highway system like this in the 1950s, we would have 50 different road systems that couldn’t connect to each other,” Wetstone said. “It does not work.”
The National Environmental Policy Act (Nepa), passed in 1970, imposed strict reviews of the impacts of highways and other major infrastructure projects under federal jurisdiction. Wetstone said he did not want to see any changes to Nepa other than that there would be “concrete decision time” for the reviews.
But climate advocates worry that the first proposal put forth by Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will also speed up oil and gas projects that increase U.S. carbon emissions.
A leaked copy of the draft legislation circulating among climate groups, seen by the FT, specifies that President Joe Biden would have to select five fossil fuel projects to be part of the bill.
The draft was watermarked with “API”, also the initials of the oil lobby American Petroleum Institute. An API spokesperson said the group did not create or edit the document.
“This bill is a travesty,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The purpose of this legislation is to benefit the fossil fuel industry.”
Climate change campaigners have opposed the two-year limit for reviews and amendments to review projects under the regulation Clean Water Actanother long-standing US law used by states and environmental groups to stall energy infrastructure.
Last week, 70 progressive Democratic lawmakers he wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to outline their opposition to the bill and urge her not to attach it to so-called “must pass” legislation.
They said the bill would disproportionately harm poorer and minority groups and “limit the public’s access to the courts to seek redress against illegal project development. [and] set arbitrary limits on the length of time the public has comments on polluting projects”.
A congressional aide told the FT that Democratic House lawmakers are privately asking Pelosi for more time to craft an authorization bill that progressives in the party could agree to.
In the Senate, leftist Bernie Sanders of Vermont last week criticized what he called Manchin’s “side deal,” calling it a “huge giveaway to Big Oil to drill, produce and sell more fossil fuels.”
Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies, a consulting firm and co-founder of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, which advocates for expanding the U.S. energy transmission grid, said that while Nepa is not a major problem for renewable energy infrastructure, its implementation could be “dysfunctional,” as there is a need to conduct multiple checks for various federal agencies.
He said there was a question about the “harm versus benefit” of allowing the reforms as the energy system underwent a fuel transition.
“If the overall demand for fossil fuels is going down significantly, while the demand for clean energy is going up dramatically, and we could meet that demand if we had the infrastructure, what is the overall benefit?” he asked.
“I think every member of Congress needs to consider this,” Gramlich said.