CCL’s position on permitting reform
Tony Sirna
793 Posts

Hello CCL volunteers!

Many of you have been asking for CCL’s position on the permitting reform bill, The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022, introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

In brief, given how rushed and controversial the bill is, we did not encourage volunteers to take any action for or against the bill at this time. 

As of Tuesday evening, the permitting reform package was removed from the government funding bill, but we may see it reemerge in the coming weeks, so it’s worth catching up on the conversation around this bill and the policy area in general. 

You can watch this training from CCL Research Coordinator Dana Nuccitelli about the importance of permitting reform, or read on for an overview:

CCL supports the goal of quickly building the clean energy economy, and see that we need ways to expedite the build out of clean energy infrastructure if we want to achieve that goal.

As a recent analysis from Princeton’s REPEAT project shows, without quickly expanding our electrical transmission capacity we could miss out on up to 80% of modeled emissions reductions from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). These same limitations would also apply under a carbon fee and dividend system – even with the right economic incentives other factors can stand in the way of deploying clean energy. 

This is a case where a slow bureaucratic process favors the status quo. Our existing infrastructure is based on fossil fuels, and so the slower we build clean energy infrastructure, the more fossil fuels we will extract and burn.

An article in the Atlantic also notes that our current permitting process favors fossil fuel pipelines over electric transmission, saying, “It’s much harder to build transmission than it is to build other types of energy infrastructure. If you want to build a new natural-gas pipeline, for instance, then you only need to go to one place: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, an independent agency. But if you want to build new transmission, then you need to win the approval of every state, county, city, and in some cases, landowner along the proposed route.”

Many people are saying that the environmental movement has to shift from a focus on blocking bad things to a mode that focuses on building the things we need for a clean energy future.

Sen. Brian Schatz said, at a Washington Post event, “Lots of environmental activism is principled on stopping bad projects from happening. But if we’re actually going to meet our clean energy goals, we have to build things. [...] We have to make it easier to build, especially electricity transmission. So the basic strategy for the grid is to electrify everything and then, over time, to make sure that the electrons going into the grid are increasingly clean. Well, that doesn’t work if it takes 15 years to do a transmission line from the American Southwest to the American Midwest. And so we’re going to have to do permitting reform.” 

This is why CCL supports the goals of clean energy permitting reform – to decarbonize our economy we need to build a lot of things and we need to do so quickly.

In good news, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes some permitting reform and the IRA provides close to $1 billion in funding to agencies to help them complete environmental reviews more quickly and thoroughly.

So, what about Senator Manchin’s Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA)?

First, the good stuff. Lots of people really like the section that would allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to authorize interstate electricity transmission projects, which should streamline that process. FERC would also be empowered to determine cost allocations across broad geographic areas so that all who benefit from the added transmission pay their share. FERC’s authority is currently ambiguous or limited in scope, and fights over who will pay for how much of a new transmission line can cause significant project delays. These provisions are supported by Grid Strategies, Americans for Clean Energy Grid, Utility Dive, and American Clean Power.

Another seemingly uncontroversial provision in the bill would designate a lead agency to coordinate any permitting review process among multiple government agencies.

But many aspects of the bill are quite controversial. It would include numerous reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that attempt to speed the review process. Clean energy advocates appreciate the shortened timelines for approval, but there are concerns that the shortened timelines and other provisions overly restrict the ability of affected communities and tribes to comment on projects that may directly adversely impact them. Also, some fear that the shortened timelines for agency environmental reviews may backfire by forcing rushed and faulty decisions that result in legal challenges that could end up slowing clean energy deployment. 

Then there is the explicit approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which circumvents the normal legal and environmental review process that is currently underway. While emissions from approval of this one pipeline would be much smaller than the benefits from the expedited clean energy deployment, some from local communities are upset over this short circuiting of the review process.

The bill also requires that the President designate 25 projects as being of “strategic national importance,” and those projects are then prioritized by agencies working on their NEPA reviews. People are also concerned that the bill requires that 5 of the 25 projects must relate to fossil fuels or biofuels. It’s unclear how much additional fossil fuel infrastructure this would lock in, or whether that tradeoff is worth the benefits cited above, because this type of policy is very difficult to model.

While CCL supports the goals of speeding the build out of clean energy infrastructure, Manchin’s bill shows that the devil is in the details when it comes to permitting reform. As stated above, this particular bill is not moving forward as part of the government funding package, but we may see it put forward again in the coming weeks after further negotiations. 

So, at this time, we are not encouraging volunteers to take any action for or against the bill. We will continue to research and fully digest the implications of this legislation and educate our volunteers on the topic so we can engage effectively moving forward.

We do encourage Congress to continue working toward legislation that will help expedite building the clean energy economy, while supporting community engagement around the potential impacts from infrastructure.

9 Replies

This is a very thorough and thoughtful exploration of a difficult topic. It may be frustrating to some volunteers who yearn for a yes/no response when confronted by folks who are fired up about the issue. But I think this position is compliant with CCL's principle of maintaining intellectual integrity regardless of which way the political winds are blowing at any given moment. Facts do matter!
 

Pete Marsh
450 Posts

I know this is nearly three months old, but I came to check out this forum because of today's conference, which reinvigorated me bigly, and I think a lot of other CCLers from my informal yet highly scientiferous sampling!

The debate around the permitting reform bill was intense, and Tony linked several good related discussions. I'll list a few more here; after reading these, and Tony's and many other things, I'm pretty squarely in the camp that concludes the downsides of Manchin's proposal were very real but very much outweighed by the upsides. One of the critical themes that connects the articles I'm posting is that (my crude summary): as humans, we often let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So while I would love to see a “clean” bill that streamlines permitting for high voltage electrical transmission and simultaneously cuts off permitting for any new fossil projects, that's not the world we live in. And if a bill such as the mid-2022 Manchin bill were to pass, the market forces that we CCLers understand and respect would indeed guide the market to a place where a very high percentage of actual projects would be for clean energy. Even if the barn door is left open for fossil projects, I doubt many would be built.

OK, a few articles that discuss this much more eloquently than I:

Not Everyone Should Have a Say,” Jerusalem Demsas, The Atlantic, Oct 2022. “To speed up permitting for energy projects, we’ll need to rethink community input.” And for an in-depth podcast interview about the same concept, her appearance on Ezra Klein's podcast titled “How Blue Cities Became So Outrageously Unaffordable” is a thought-provoking call to progressives to wake up.

Manchin’s permitting-reform bill splits Dems, pro-renewables groups,” Jeff St John, Canary Media, Sep 2022
“The transmission-buildout process is broken — but is the chance to fix it worth the perks and giveaways to the fossil industry?”

Want to solve climate change? Open more land to solar, industry leader says,” Sammy Roth, LA Times' Boiling Point newsletter, Dec 2022. “Ending the climate crisis will almost certainly require putting solar panels and wind turbines on huge amounts of land — some of it valuable wildlife habitat, some of it now used for food production, some of it held sacred by Indigenous tribes. It’s an uncomfortable reality backed up by robust scientific research — and the starting point for many efforts to identify the least damaging places to build renewable energy infrastructure.”

Manchin’s New Bill Could Lead to One Big Climate Win,” Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, Sep 2022. “Power lines are crucial to expanding renewables. America could finally—finally!—be about to build more of them.”

I really wish it were that simple...” Dr. Jesse Jenkins of Princeton, on the complexities we're discussing here. “The permitting bill is/was a big mixed bag for climate & the environment (as one should expect from any bill aiming to get 60 Senate votes). We still need to build new clean energy & transmission at unprecedented pace!” - this one is Jesse's #EnergyTwitter post about the study mentioned earlier by Tony. 

Analysis on the importance of electricity transmission expansion to unlock the full emissions reduction potential (& health benefits) of the #InflationReductionAct,” another tweet thread by Dr. Jesse Jenkins. Yes, I might be addicted to #EnergyTwitter (if it still exists 😎). “Read on to learn why 100s of millions of tons are at stake.”

@Tony Sirna The Washington Post reported today that Pelosi and Schumer are trying to attach Manchin's bill to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.  CCL may (or may not) want to have a position on this.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/12/04/manchin-permitting-reform-bill/
 

@Pete Marsh thanks for those resources, and @Jeffrey Cohlberg we're going to have to wait and see the text of the new permitting reform package to determine our position on it, but it sounds like we may not have to wait long!  It's a very dynamic issue in Congress right now though 😊

Tony Sirna
793 Posts

@Jeffrey Cohlberg - I just added a new thread on this topic here so keep an eye there.
 

Nadine Wang
165 Posts

Thanks to everyone for all the great info and references.  Here's an article I came across which gives a nice concise overview of the barriers to decarbonizing the grid and points to the need for permitting reform:  “The Challenges of Decarbonizing the U.S. Electric Grid by 2035” .

 


 

@Tony Sirna I know that Manchin's bill is history, but there's something I hope you will clarify for me in what CCL is looking for.

In your post, you have: 

An article in the Atlantic also notes that our current permitting process favors fossil fuel pipelines over electric transmission, saying, “It’s much harder to build transmission than it is to build other types of energy infrastructure. If you want to build a new natural-gas pipeline, for instance, then you only need to go to one place: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, an independent agency. But if you want to build new transmission, then you need to win the approval of every state, county, city, and in some cases, landowner along the proposed route.” with the idea that this slows things down a lot.

and 

We do encourage Congress to continue working toward legislation that will help expedite building the clean energy economy, while supporting community engagement around the potential impacts from infrastructure.

So we want FERC to have greater control over new transmission lines (presumably that cross state boundaries) but we still want communities to have a say. So that differs from the present status quo because communities will have input into FERC's decision (e.g. where it would be best to put it), but they won't be able to stop the transmission line from being built?
 

Tony Sirna
793 Posts
Hi Nancy, - Under a system where FERC has a greater role in the permitting process for transmission lines, communities/cities/states/etc would be able to provide input into the process. This could result in a transmission line not being approved at all, but more likely would be that the input would help regulators approve the transmission line in a way that minimizes negative impact and supports those community's needs. By having all the stakeholders participate in a single process it is easier to resolve conflicts, allocate costs, etc. The current process is very cumbersome for resolving issues between states or other jurisdictions and that can cause huge delays. 


 
Thanks Tony! 

That's what I thought but was unable to state so clearly.

With appreciation,
Nancy

Nancy Jacobson
Co-lead Southern Tier & Finger Lakes Chapter
Co-lead Agriculture and Forestry Action Team
Citizens' Climate Lobby


"With public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions."                                                                                                                                                      ~Abraham Lincoln

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