When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., secured the crucial support of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for the tax and spending package subsequently retitled the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), climate change activists celebrated its unprecedented $369 billion in spending to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But Manchin’s vote came with strings attached to his own priorities.
In addition to requiring the federal government to sell more public lands and waters for oil and gas drilling, Manchin secured a promise from Schumer to bring to a vote a bill that would streamline the federal environmental review process, making it easier and faster to build energy-related infrastructure. Schumer is expected to fulfill that promise this month, during the last legislative session before the midterm elections, and it’s dividing climate change activists — who oppose the proposal — from many of their usual allies.
Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is now reportedly writing legislation shortening and simplifying — opponents say weakening — the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act. Schumer has said he will attach the measure to a government-funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, that must pass by Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown.
A draft of the proposal from July — which bears the watermark of the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade organization for oil and gas companies — was leaked to the press last month. (The Washington Post reported that, according to a source, the API didn’t write the bill, but the group was circulating it in the industry for comment.) A two-page summary of a newer version reportedly circulating between Schumer, Manchin and a few other senators was also obtained by the Post, which reported that the bill “would expedite not only fossil fuel projects such as natural gas pipelines but also the transmission lines needed to carry clean electricity,” through policies such as limiting reviews to two years and reducing the time in which lawsuits can be filed.
Some climate change action advocates believe that changes to the permitting processes are needed to ramp up American production, transmission and capacity of clean energy. Transitioning to an economy run fully on clean energy will require massive new infrastructure construction, they argue, and the current processes are too slow and choked with veto points to complete all of those new projects fast enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert catastrophic climate change.
“Right now, there’s just too much delay in solar and wind and geothermal, so I want at every possible opportunity to speed up permitting for renewables,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told the Associated Press.
“If we’re going to actually meet our clean energy goals, we’re going to need to build big planet-saving projects, and that means the federal regulations that slow them down have to be looked at very carefully,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told the news agency.
But virtually the entire environmental movement and the left wing of the Democratic Party are opposed to this type of reform, fearing that easing the construction of infrastructure like oil and gas pipelines will unleash pollution in the communities they pass through. From the moment the Manchin-Schumer deal was announced, climate change activists have been decrying the fossil fuel-friendly provisions, which they worry will increase fossil fuel extraction and lock it in for decades.
“Evergreen Action will forcefully oppose any legislation that would gut America’s bedrock environmental laws, cut communities out of the environmental review process, or force through new fossil fuel infrastructure which would increase pollution in frontline communities and undermine our progress towards President Biden’s climate goals,” said the executive director of Evergreen Action, Jamal Raad, in a statement on Aug. 15. “Climate champions in Congress don’t owe Joe Manchin their votes on this backroom scheme.”
More than 650 climate and environmental justice advocacy organizations, including big groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, signed a letter to Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., opposing the legislation.
“We call on you to unequivocally reject any effort to promote fossil fuels, advance unproven technologies, and weaken our core environmental laws,” they wrote. “You must stand with the communities who continue to bear the brunt of harm from fossil fuels and act to prevent wholesale climate disaster.”
“We are against this proposal,” Matthew Davis, senior director of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, which sent a separate letter in concert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Yahoo News. “We think it would prioritize fossil fuel interests over communities that are impacted by fossil fuel projects. We don’t think this is the right pathway for permitting at all.”
These groups have found some support among their usual allies in Congress. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., wrote a letter to his party’s House leadership, signed by 76 of his colleagues — mostly progressives such as Reps. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — urging them to leave permitting provisions out of the must-pass government-funding bill.
“The permitting and public notice and comment provisions mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are among the only tools local communities have to force careful review of federal projects that may have serious, long-term, environmental, and public health consequences in those communities,” Grijalva and his colleagues wrote. “Congress should continue to provide increased funding to assist federal agencies in completing the NEPA process, but attempts to short-circuit or undermine the law in the name of ‘reform’ must be opposed.”
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has also called for splitting permitting streamlining from the continuing resolution, but he has expressed openness to permitting reform if it “can reflect the values of environmental justice." Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, has gone further and threatened to oppose the government funding bill if it has the Schumer-Manchin “side deal” included.
However, supporters of permitting reform include interest groups, such as wind energy companies, that are usually allied with the climate movement and progressive politicians.
“The once-in-a-generation opportunity to build out America’s clean energy resources enabled by the IRA must be accompanied by efforts to expedite the permitting process to realize the full potential of the Act,” JC Sandberg, chief advocacy officer for the American Clean Power Association, a trade association for clean power companies, told Yahoo News in a statement. “Congress should consider reasonable reforms to the permitting process that will help ensure it strikes the right balance of timely decisions for projects while preserving thorough environmental reviews. Today, the average timeline for a project to obtain necessary environmental reviews is 4.5 years. Such long timelines for clean energy projects could serve as a roadblock to unlocking the full potential of the IRA.”
Switching to clean energy necessitates building more than just wind turbines and solar panels. Delivering the energy generated by those technologies in the big, open spaces of the nation’s interior to consumers on the coasts will require new transmission lines. Storing the power for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing requires massive battery storage facilities. And the demand for electricity will go up dramatically if transportation, home heating and industrial processes are eventually all powered by electricity.
While clean energy providers may be in the unusual position of backing a bill opposed by House progressives, they could find the votes for a permitting reform bill among their usual adversaries on the right. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and 38 Republican Senate colleagues introduced their own rival bill to speed up the permitting process.
Although the Republican bill is unlikely to win the Democratic support needed, a Manchin-led effort could draw some Republicans.
“When it comes to both energy and the climate, I don’t know how we reach any of our goals without permitting reform,” Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, the chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus, told Yahoo News. “Energy independence as a country, low, affordable energy prices, a strong economy and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions: I think all of those things are contingent on permitting reform. And I think that’s why you’re seeing people on both the right and the left interested in this.”
Republicans, even more environmentally friendly ones, won’t back a bill that doesn’t help fossil fuels along with renewables. (Curtis argues that even expanding American fossil fuel production would reduce global emissions, since U.S. oil and gas has lower emissions in its production than fuel from less environmentally conscious countries such as Russia.)
“If it’s simply addressing those things that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and doesn’t deal with energy independence, I don’t think you’re going to get my support, I don’t think you’re going to get many of my colleagues’ support,” Curtis said. “A bill that I think would gain bipartisan support would be one that does all of those things and reduces emissions, so that everybody gets what they want.”
But environmentalists question the premise that changes to environmental review of energy projects are needed to facilitate the growth of clean energy.
“It is likely the case that we need more transmission, we need to build out our energy grid as we electrify,” Davis acknowledged. But, he noted, the IRA already contained measures to boost transmission line development, including $2 billion for loans for electric transmission construction and $760 million for grants to assist federal, state and local agencies that shorten approval time. It also included funding for boosting the capacity of understaffed agencies that review permit applications.
“It’s really recent; the bill didn’t get signed into law that long ago, and we haven't necessarily seen the full impact of those permitting changes,” Davis said.
Update: the co-signers on Grijalva's letter increased from 71 to 76.