Overhaul federal permitting as part of the debt limit deal? Not as easy as it sounds.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, questions Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during a hearing on May 2, 2023 in Washington, DC. The hearing to examine President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget request for Haaland’s department turned into a forum for criticism of the administration’s energy policies. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Congressional leaders negotiating a deal to avoid a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt are talking about including an overhaul of how the federal government reviews projects for their environmental impact.
There is bipartisan support for changes to the lengthy environmental approval process among climate-minded Democrats eager to speed construction of renewable energy projects, as well as Republicans who have complained for years that the burdens of federal permitting restrict development.
But with a handful of competing and conflicting proposals floating through Congress and the clock ticking toward default as soon as early June, time is running out for a deal on permitting legislation to be included in a debt limit bill.
“It’s probably not likely that you’re going to get substantive permitting reform in the debt limit bill,” said Frank Maisano, a Republican media strategist and partner with Bracewell LLP, a firm whose clients include energy companies.
“There just isn’t enough time to get through some of the thorny details and the complexities … It’s going to require a lot of back and forth, and it’s going to require a lot of willingness to compromise from all parties.”
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The shape of such a compromise had not emerged by Thursday, roughly two weeks before the federal government could run out of funding to pay its bills without a debt limit law. Instead, lawmakers may agree on a “framework to a framework,” and work out the details later, Maisano said.
Two weeks is not enough time to work through negotiations this challenging, said Lisa Frank, the executive director of the Washington legislative office for advocacy group Environment America.
“These are really complicated and difficult issues to address,” Lisa Frank said. “So throwing something slapdash into the debt ceiling deal, I think, would wind up being a pretty bad idea.”
The Republican-controlled U.S. House included major overhauls to environmental reviews in a comprehensive energy bill that the chamber approved — with little support from Democrats — in March.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has said he has no plans to bring the measure up there.
Four key senators, the top Democrats and Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee and Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have all introduced bills to update the permitting process.
But none has emerged as a clear favorite.
The latest Senate bill, led by Democrats Tom Carper, a Delaware senator who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, was introduced only Thursday. Sens. Tina Smith of Minnesota, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Alex Padilla of California cosponsored the measure.
That bill includes guidelines for time limits, but those would not be enforceable.
That creates a conflict with Wyoming Republican John Barrasso, the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who said at a hearing last week that “enforceable timelines” were among his dealbreakers for a bill.
A bill led by West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, the ranking Republican on Carper’s committee, also includes a strict two-year timeline.
Barrasso, the third-ranking Senate Republican, also said he would demand a bill treats all forms of energy equally. That would appear at odds with the Carper bill that is focused on renewable energy and requires that environmental reviews consider cumulative effects, including climate change.
And while President Joe Biden is in support of changing the approvals process, a framework the White House released last week also said renewable energy projects should be prioritized.
Centrist West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III authored another measure, the only one with demonstrated bipartisan support through a failed Senate floor vote last year. Manchin, the chairman of the Senate Energy panel, urged compromise at the hearing last week.
“We need to take our names off the bill and go back to a bipartisan permitting reform bill,” he said. “That’s the only way we can take politics out of this. … Make no mistake: Actually getting something done will require a lot of compromise and prioritization.”
Even with some Democratic climate hawks in the Senate pursuing a deal for its renewable energy potential, environmental groups are still largely wary of changes to bedrock environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act that requires the lengthy reviews at issue.
Complaints about permitting delays are overblown, said Aaron Weiss, the deputy director of conservation group Center for Western Priorities.
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“It is a tiny portion of NEPA reviews that ever run past two years,” he said. “And when they do, it’s for good reason, it’s because either it’s incredibly controversial or there’s something deficient about the initial proposal that needs to be addressed.”
The federal government could speed reviews without undermining environmental protections, by adding staff to the Bureau of Land Management, he said.
Some environmental groups concede the process could be hastened, especially for renewable energy projects, but are loath to support anything that would ease approvals for fossil fuel approvals.
“Some of these problems we think are worth solving,” Frank said. “And some we think are not, in fact, problems.”
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