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Manchin unveils permitting proposal as battle lines harden

Opponents aim to keep the legislation out of a final stopgap spending bill

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., released the long-awaited text of his federal permitting overhaul proposal.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., released the long-awaited text of his federal permitting overhaul proposal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Legislation to overhaul the federal energy and infrastructure permitting system released by Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., on Wednesday would set a two-year target for reviews of major projects and shorten the statute of limitations for legal challenges.

The draft legislation is intended to streamline the permitting process outlined under the National Environmental Policy Act. Manchin said the reforms are necessary to ensure that renewable infrastructure projects can be constructed on a reasonable timeline.

As part of a deal to secure Manchin’s vote for the climate, health care and tax law signed by President Joe Biden last month, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has pledged to include the legislation in a continuing resolution needed to fund the federal government before the beginning of fiscal 2023 on Oct. 1.

The permitting provisions would set a two-year target for NEPA reviews of major energy and natural resource projects that require environmental impact statements, which typically take at least twice as long, and set a one-year target for projects that require a less detailed environmental assessment.

In order to reduce the volume of litigation, which has historically delayed a number of large infrastructure projects, it would set a statute of limitations of 150 days for legal challenges and require the random assignment of judges. If a court remands a permit back to an agency for reconsideration, the legislation would require it to set a schedule of no more than 180 days for the agency to act.

Manchin has frequently pointed to the case of the roughly 300-mile-long Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia, as an example of how the current process delays infrastructure. The project has faced delays over the litigation and reconsideration of necessary permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management.

However, if passed the bill would ensure the pipeline’s completion by requiring federal agencies to issue all necessary permits. 

Opponents to Manchin’s proposed reforms have expressed concern that the changes would weaken environmental standards.

“We don’t need to gut the Clean Water Act and other bedrock environmental laws to build out wind and solar energy,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Any member of Congress who claims this disastrous legislation is vital for ramping up renewables either doesn’t understand or is ignoring the enormous fossil fuel giveaways at stake.

Meeting goals

But some supporters have said changes are necessary for the U.S. to construct the infrastructure that is needed to meet national climate targets, including the goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Models on the effects of the reconciliation bill found that it would reduce emissions by 40 percent by the end of the decade, but a report released by the Progressive Policy Institute on Wednesday said that “these benefits will only accrue fully if sweeping new permitting reforms are enacted quickly” to ensure that transmission lines and other infrastructure can be constructed.

“We know we need to expand and upgrade the nation’s electrical grid to fully realize the renewable energy growth expected under the Inflation Reduction Act,” American Council on Renewable Energy CEO Gregory Wetstone said in a statement. “Yet, it remains very difficult to get new transmission lines sited, permitted and built in this country, with successful efforts rare and typically taking more than a decade.”

The Biden administration has also endorsed the overhaul. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Sept. 8 that “the point of this legislation is to help ensure a long-term clean energy supply for this country.”

In Congress, Manchin faces strong opposition from members of his own party. House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva led a letter earlier this month that was signed by 77 House Democrats who oppose including the permitting overhaul in a continuing resolution or any other must-pass end-of-year legislation. The letter said that doing so would force members “to choose between protecting [environmental justice] communities from further pollution or funding the government.”

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., have also opposed inserting the bill into a continuing resolution. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has circulated a letter among his colleagues urging Schumer to hold a separate vote on the permitting legislation.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he was not included in discussions surrounding the provision on the Mountain Valley Pipeline despite its path through his state, adding that he could not support this provision and encouraged his colleagues to do the same.

Despite repeated calls for permitting reform, Senate Republicans have also expressed their opposition to the legislative maneuvering that allows the reconciliation bill to pass. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced her own permitting overhaul bill on Sept. 12 that would codify many of the changes the Trump administration made to the NEPA permitting process. The Biden administration finalized the reversal of those changes in April. The bill is co-sponsored by 46 of her Republican colleagues. 

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