We hear on the news and from several environmental outlets that the need to transition to clean energy is more urgent than ever in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. While the prospect of switching to alternative sources sounds excellent on paper, the reality is that there are numerous legal and technical cogs that are necessary to make this goal a reality. This is where permitting reform comes in.
There’s been renewed talks recently on both Capitol Hill and the news about permitting reform, but many people, including passionate environmentalists, don’t always know what it consists of. I hope to break down the general definition of permitting reform and elaborate on how truly complex this issue is in not just political negotiations but in implementation as well. Speaking plainly, permitting reform can best be summarized as the legal steps that must be taken for energy projects, renewable and nonrenewable alike, to gain approval from federal agencies and commence their operations. The process for them to achieve these ends can be long and tedious pending environmental impact statements for more environmentally sensitive projects, oversight from sources like the EPA, and countless other roadblocks.
Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan organization I’m a member of, has prioritized clean energy permitting reform as one of its top objectives this year and provides a wealth of information on it. As lawmakers currently debate how reform should come about accompanied with recent passage of the Lower Energy Costs Act in the House, this is the time for everyone to come together for this critical element in our fight against climate change. Last year, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law which aims to reduce U.S. emissions 40% by 2030 and be much closer to honoring Paris Agreement commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Funds for clean energy projects are allocated and decided upon by states to carry out them out, but the law doesn’t address the need for permitting reform.
This leaves us with more work to do as it’s similar to having all the necessary pieces and tools to put something together but without the directions. We need reform in order to speed up our ability to build and connect new energy projects, have new projects up and running quickly, and keep the most vulnerable communities safe. In particular, communities of color suffer more from the devastating effects of climate change than any other, so these places that are on the front lines need to be prioritized. Research shows that, without permitting reform, we will only achieve about 20% of carbon pollution reduction from climate policy already in place (REPEAT_IRA_Transmission_2022–09–22.pdf (repeatproject.org).
The 20% minimum is far too short of where we need to be, especially as rising global average temperatures will only exacerbate the trends we’re already observing. It’s imperative that the world limits warming up to 1.5 degrees Celsius as anything higher is projected to be devastating, resulting in greater sea level rise, more dangerous storms, more frequent heatwaves and droughts, increased displacement, food shortages, and countless other effects. Even the increase of temperatures of only 1/10 of a degree could make our efforts to mitigate the climate crisis that much harder. However, generating the response sufficient to improve clean energy permitting won’t be simple by any means.
As of now, it takes about 4.5 years for federal agencies to complete environmental impact statements (EISs) for major energy projects (Environmental Impact Statement Timelines (2010–2018) (doe.gov). These determine the potential impacts to the environment and are mandatory for any endeavor that’s slated to drastically alter them. One may think, “Why should we shorten the time for these important reviews when it would make more sense to ensure that they’re thorough?” Indeed, it’s true that they need to be conducted as accurately as possible, but the process has to be shortened considering that we’re running out of time to fully transition to a green energy grid. The need to increase our clean electricity transmission capacity is now, and the current capacity we have has to be tripled to meet our needs by 2050 (The Report | Net-Zero America Project (princeton.edu).
The first form of legislation we’ve seen this Congress on permitting reform, the Lower Energy Costs Act, highlights some of the more pressing changes needed in this process. Some of them include the need to fast track the approval process for American energy production on federal lands, the importance of America to become energy independent, and the removal of certain fees that are relevant to the development of federal energy resources. Despite those being a few of the positive aspects of this bill, it still gives too much free reign for fossil fuels which would ultimately set us back. It even contains measures to repeal a majority of clean energy provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Furthermore, the bill seeks to expedite hard rock mining, repeal the natural gas tax, prohibit the President from declaring a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing, direct the Department of the Interior to conduct sales for the lease of oil and gas resources on federal lands, and eliminate certain restrictions on the import/export of oil and natural gas (H.R.1–118th Congress (2023–2024): Lower Energy Costs Act | Congress.gov | Library of Congress). Even though the short-term need for fossil fuels still exists, we must balance their precarious influence on us and clean energy so that we can phase out the former in the long run. It would be completely counterintuitive to use permitting reform as a means to open up more fossil fuel projects which have gotten us into this mess. Critics of clean energy permitting reform also argue about which entities should oversee the processes involved and whether or not states should have greater sovereignty.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is perhaps the biggest underlining body of permitting reform which mandates a process to ensure that federal agencies assess environmental impacts before approving or not approving a project. Permits are also issued under the consultation of NEPA. There are several complex labels or designations that projects receive via these guidelines, but just so that we don’t get too lost in them, here are a few of the basics. A proposed project could be labeled as a Categorical Exclusion (CE) which means that environmental impact would more than likely be insignificant, thus eliminating the need for further review. Environmental Assessment (EA) specifies that further evaluation is required to avoid violating environmental laws that are enforced by agencies like the EPA.
In addition, if an Environmental Assessment (EA) finds that environmental impacts will be minor, the project will be issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). If findings are significant, that’s when an Environmental Impact Statement must be completed and approved by the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ), taking about 4.5 years to complete on average. Another agency that plays a major role in the permitting process is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Besides differences between Democrats and Republicans on fossil fuels, conservatives voice concerns of too much federal oversight from FERC and NEPA, taking away power from states and local governments. They have proposed plans to revise NEPA and streamline the process, a move which has room for compromise.
Progressives, in contrast, want to strengthen NEPA and the FERC to have more authority over the permitting process for electrical transmission lines and give frontline communities the chance to remained engaged in the process. Both sides, from this standpoint, have valid points. On one hand, it would not behoove states and local communities if they don’t have any authority to engage, and in the same token, it wouldn’t help if federal agencies had no deciding power. State permitting rules often reflect those of federal rules despite varying in stringency and local permitting rules are important for zoning and planning ordinances. Thankfully, there are ways that provisions from both parties could be combined to form a bipartisan permitting reform package if they choose to pursue one.
Among a few, one could be giving the FERC greater authority over the interstate transmission line permitting process except that it doesn’t take away too much power from states. Perhaps states could have their own boards or subsidiary agencies that meet and work to decide on project permitting and have those decisions sent to the FERC or any other pertinent federal agency for approval. If approved, the project(s) may proceed in that particular state, or, if not, they are sent back for revisions until all the discrepancies are corrected. Another way would be to have smaller boards or agencies be formed and work together in respective states to engage in project permitting. If they are required to come together during the later stages of the process and give their whole approval or disapproval, then they could possibly continue to operate like that under certain conditions established by FERC. If none of them are able to solve problems amongst themselves, FERC may intervene.
Other bipartisan measures may involve giving FERC authority to allocate transmission project costs proportional to benefits received from their services and creating an Office of Transmission within the agency to focus on the national need for more electrical transmission lines. The hard part is trying to strike a deal without giving too much to fossil fuels, especially when Republicans and some moderate Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin have already expressed their support for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. In a bill he introduced, it and other fossil fuel projects would largely benefit and obscure the clean energy counterparts despite the MVP already having been attached to the recent debt ceiling deal between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden. This ignites another concern from conservatives: how could clean energy permitting reform impact fossil fuel projects?
The truth is that some types of fossil fuel projects already experience streamlined permitting advantages over clean energy alternatives, so if permitting reform were to be aimed at both types, nonrenewable energy would not gain any further advantages. Meanwhile, there are thousands of clean energy projects waiting for approval that could help us get closer to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions coupled with phasing out fossil fuels. As a matter of fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that in each of the past three years, 84% of new energy capacity was clean energy (U.S. Energy Information Administration — EIA — Independent Statistics and Analysis). Not only that, but more than 95% of new energy projects awaiting permits are solar, wind, and battery storage with less than 5% being natural gas (Queued Up: Characteristics of Power Plants Seeking Transmission Interconnection | Electricity Markets and Policy Group (lbl.gov).
Not to forget, demand for fossil fuels is gradually decreasing with the peak of many sources like coal coming in the next few years and trending even more downward after that. Natural gas will peak by the end of the decade, and oil will reach its height by the mid-2030s (World Energy Outlook 2022 — Analysis — IEA). These companies, as a result, are now more wary of the idea of increasing infrastructure for production since they don’t want to be left with stranded assets. What’s the use of building the infrastructure necessary to increase production if national governments and the public are shifting the other way? So even if permitting rules were eased more for them, that still doesn’t guarantee increased demand. Whether or not clean energy permitting reform becomes a reality in the U.S., fossil fuels are eventually going to run out and the demand will continue to decrease no matter how much they are propped up by conservative voices.
Apart from reducing U.S. emissions, clean energy permitting reform can allow communities to provide their input on these projects and choose good ones over bad ones. This will safeguard their health and give frontline communities the relief they so desperately need. Cleaner energy sources would be provided, older polluting power plants will be replaced, and the increased electrification of cars and trucks would reduce air pollution in densely populated areas. Air pollution causes at least 250,000 deaths in the U.S. each year with many minority residents suffering from health problems attributed to unhealthy air like diabetes, asthma, COPD, and cancer (Clean energy could save American lives to tune of $700 billion per year » Yale Climate Connections). The Inflation Reduction act is already projected to reduce these deaths, but why stop now when we have the potential to save more lives?
The economic benefits can’t be ignored either as communities would have more jobs become available, including a large number of temporary construction jobs that will boost development. New businesses would also be attracted to states and locales that are interested in renewable energy, giving long-term stable tax revenue for schools and local governments. Homegrown energy will allow states, and the country as a whole, to become more independent and not be forced to rely on pernicious entities like OPEC which is currently slashing production and affecting global oil markets. All of these rewards can be achieved if people of the U.S. focus on engaging with their members of Congress to persuade them to draft a bipartisan clean energy permitting reform package. With the debt ceiling and other pecuniary endeavors currently occupying headlines, there is no better time than the present!
In summation, permitting reform is the blueprint for getting America’s clean energy goals moving. It may not be the most interesting aspect of environmental activism, but we must chart these legal and technical waters if we wish to see our country become a fully independent and sustainable one. For more information about clean energy permitting reform, visit Citizens Climate Lobby’s website where you can view training topics and forums. In the meantime, let’s keep striving for a healthier world!