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Meet the new permitting debate. It’s the same as the old one.

Forces for and opposed to a permitting overhaul look a lot like they did in December

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced permitting bills on April 4.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced permitting bills on April 4. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

To understand how to run the gauntlet needed to change federal law that governs environmental permits, and the hurdles that must be overcome in doing so, look to a vote in December.

Forty-seven senators voted in favor of attaching an environmental permitting bill to the annual defense authorization language, which became law, and 47 voted against it, leaving the permitting legislation out of the defense bill. Most Democrats, Maine independent Angus King and seven Republicans voted for the legislation. Most Republicans and 10 members of the Democratic conference, including Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, voted against it.

“What crisis will have to occur to spur bipartisan action?” Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who offered the bill, said after the tie vote. “As frustrating as the political games of Washington are, I will not give up.”

As permitting proposals percolate months later — including in debt-limit legislation passed by a new Republican majority in the House — the forces for and opposed to a permitting overhaul look a lot like they did in December. Congressional Democrats on the party’s left wing are wary of bills to limit public input from communities near new projects, moderate Democrats favor permitting changes to speed up clean-energy projects and Republicans are convinced the permitting process takes too long to complete.

Beyond Manchin’s new bill, which would establish time limits for environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act, the primary federal permitting law, a pair of Senate Republicans — Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and John Barrasso of Wyoming — introduced their own bills last Thursday.

Those bills propose changes similar to what Manchin’s legislation would require, including the completion of a gas pipeline, more than 300 miles long, in West Virginia and Virginia.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said he is writing his own bill, and Reps. Mike Levin, D-Calif., and Sean Casten, D-Ill., say they’ll have a draft bill, too, focusing on electric transmission lines. 

House Republicans also submitted their own permitting measure, passing, with some Democratic “aye” votes, legislation in March to streamline permitting laws, though GOP members said their bill will have to be rewritten to become law. Portions of that bill, including the permitting changes, were included in the Republican-passed House debt-limit bill.

“The president’s talking about this as well,” Capito said of the permitting overhaul. “I guess we could say it could be in the eye of the beholder, but I think in this particular case, I feel optimistic.”

Many Democrats remain skeptical of permitting proposals that would shorten the time allotted for environmental reviews and impact statements or limit the ability of community and environmental groups to challenge projects in court. 

EPA weighing in

“Can I have your assurance that any permitting reform that you support will not allow higher levels of toxins to be released in frontline communities?” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan at a hearing about the agency’s budget May 3.

Regan offered his assurance. But Merkley raised concerns that accelerated permitting for so-called “chemical recycling facilities” would lead to discharges by those plants. 

“We’ll weigh in as mightily as we can,” Regan said. “We know that we need to see permitting reform, but in that technical advice that we provide to Congress, we will be sure to flag those things because they’re important to us.”

Merkley, who voted against Manchin’s amendment in December, replied: “These will be the issues I’ll be paying close attention to.”

A faction of Senate Republicans, including John Cornyn of Texas and Roger Marshall of Kansas, bristled against Manchin’s permitting bill last year, saying they worry utility customers in states in the middle of the country, where wind farms are plentiful, could bear the brunt of the financial cost to generate electricity and send it to across state lines to population centers.

“I’m afraid this amendment will do more harm than good,” Marshall said Dec. 15, before the vote. By giving certain authorities to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, the bill would usher in a spate of transmission lines running across the country, bringing electricity from conservative states to more liberal city centers, Marshall said.

“Unelected bureaucrats would have the authority to make electric customers in mostly red states pay to deliver expensive and intermittent energy that fits the green energy dreams of blue states and in many cases causes rural America to pay for urban America’s electricity,” he said. 

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, raised similar objections during a May 4 hearing about oversight of FERC.

“Some harmful ideas have made their way into the mix and some of those ideas would increase consumer costs without providing any benefits,” Lee said. “It’s simply not fair to force ratepayers in states like Utah or Idaho or Wyoming to pay for and otherwise shoulder the burden associated with the costs of the California and the Oregon climate policies.”

Asked the same day about potential objections from the right flank of the Senate Republican conference, Barrasso said, “Certainly adding a federal law on top of what states are doing, that states feel is the right way to do it, is unnecessary.”

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