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Permitting overhaul puts usual allies in opposing camps

Bill would set target to finish environmental impact statements within two years, environmental assessments within a year

Electric power lines are pictured on Aquasco Farm Road in Prince George's County, Md.
Electric power lines are pictured on Aquasco Farm Road in Prince George's County, Md. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Environmentalists and clean energy groups, historically allies in seeking rapid expansion of carbon-free energy sources, have come out on opposite sides of the proposed permitting overhaul introduced last week by Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

The proposal, which is expected to be included in a continuing resolution to be voted on this week under a deal he reached with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., would be a shift in policy that Manchin has long sought. In the wake of the passage of the climate, health care and tax law signed last month, Manchin said a permitting overhaul was necessary to construct energy projects and infrastructure, including those needed to reduce emissions and meet climate targets.

After the release of the legislative text, groups including the American Council on Renewable Energy and American Clean Power urged its passage.

“Our current permitting system is overly cumbersome and mired in delays, hamstringing our ability to grow the clean energy economy,” ACP CEO Heather Zichal said in a statement calling for the legislation’s passage. “Without these reforms, we run the risk of jeopardizing the deployment of 100 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030, and with that, we’ll also fall short of the job creation and carbon reduction benefits that would be realized from these reforms.”

Manchin’s bill aims to streamline the process outlined under the National Environmental Policy Act by setting targets to finish environmental impact statements within two years and environmental assessments within a year. It also would require that all other permits are issued within 180 days of completing the NEPA process.

The bill would also give the federal government authority over transmission lines found to be in the national interest, and require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure costs are allocated to the customers they benefit. Grid United CEO Michael Skelly said these changes would help ensure that some projects that don’t even enter the planning stage because of a lack of a mechanism to pay for them may ultimately be constructed.

Before Manchin proposed his permitting overhaul, researchers at Princeton University’s REPEAT Project, Rhodium Group and Energy Innovation all modeled that the law signed last month would reduce emissions by as much as 40 percent.

However, the REPEAT Project said in a report released Sept. 22 that its projected outcome depends on “more than doubling the historical pace of electricity transmission expansion over the last decade” to meet the increased demand caused by electric vehicles, heat pumps and other forms of electrification.

“While our modeling finds this outcome makes economic sense, current transmission planning, siting, permitting and cost allocation practices can all potentially impede the real-world pace of transmission expansion,” the report said.

Opposition

However, the inclusion of provisions that would alter NEPA and shorten timelines drew swift opposition from environmental groups, which had already expressed opposition to the overhaul when it was announced in July in order to secure Manchin’s vote on the health care, tax and climate legislation.

“We must accelerate our transition to clean energy to fight climate change,” said Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen. “But we cannot do so on the backs of the communities of color and low income communities that have been bearing the impact of fossil fuel pollution for far too long.”

Jim Walsh, policy director for Food and Water Watch, said that regardless of whether it is a pipeline or a transmission project, there are potential harms that need to be examined, and that “bad solar and wind transmission projects can be made better through the NEPA process.”

Walsh said time limits, such as a statute of limitations for groups to bring challenges, would create a small window for the public to evaluate projects that developers had worked on for years.

Elise Caplan, director of energy policy for the American Council on Renewable Energy, said a time limit would not prevent the studying of environmental impacts, and noted the law signed last month included funds to help state and local governments site projects with input from communities.

“More broadly, a lot of disadvantaged communities have fossil fuel plants located there,” said Caplan. “And the more you can bring renewables onto the grid, you’re going to accelerate the retirement of a lot of these very old plants that are very polluting.

Members of Manchin’s own party have expressed opposition to his proposal or urged that it be decoupled from must-pass legislation to keep the government funded after Sept. 30. House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., who has spearheaded a bill to bolster the NEPA approval process for environmental justice communities, referred to the bill as a “fossil fuel brainchild.”

Manchin said his bill would support an “all the above” energy approach. Many provisions in the bill could benefit fossil fuel projects, while a requirement for the president to create a list of 25 energy projects of strategic national importance that would receive expedited federal review specifies that five of them should be fossil fuel projects.

The bill also would grant all outstanding permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a controversial 300-mile-long gas pipeline that has run over budget and behind schedule due to delays over permits challenged by environmental advocates. Both Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia have expressed opposition to this provision, arguing that it ignores much of the opposition the project faces in their state. Both senators had previously introduced a bill that would give local communities more input during the FERC approval process.

While Manchin has previously suggested his proposal may garner support from Republican lawmakers, the GOP’s support has been subdued. Even Republicans who previously called for a permitting overhaul have said they’ll oppose the legislation, in part because they didn’t like the deal Manchin struck with Schumer. While acknowledging the opposition in both parties, Manchin has remained unswayed by the criticism of the bill and said in a Monday editorial in The Wall Street Journal that his bill would “help cut costs and accelerate the building of the critical energy infrastructure we need.”

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