A problematic hurdle imposed by the federal government has long plagued businesses looking to deploy their capital into the American economy: permitting. And while a deal last year between Democrats and Republicans to reform overly burdensome federal rules that delay the development of next generation infrastructure could not be reached, there is still hope on the horizon. The prospect of a major bipartisan win is slowly materializing. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) recently met to discuss “common ground.”
As a proud Democrat who has long called for strengthening America’s infrastructure and advancing responsible climate solutions, I’m optimistic that the 118th Congress might soon clear out unnecessary federal red tape and get to the real business of advancing America’s energy security and combating climate change.
Their first task: overhaul the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA), a well-intentioned environmental law that has grown into a labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape. Currently, NEPA’s burdensome rules are time-consuming and a magnet for litigation, leaving too many renewable and non-renewable projects squandered. In his guidelines laid out last year, Senator Manchin proposes two-year limits on environmental reviews under NEPA, revisions to Clean Water Act approvals and limits on judicial review, and the creation of a new priority list of projects to include those for fossil fuels, nuclear energy, carbon capture, and renewables.
Democrats in Congress should support this effort, as it not only supports crucial job-creating projects, but also advances the fight against climate change. Permits for new infrastructure will be needed to meet President Biden’s goals of clean electricity by 2035; this objective will require unprecedented new transmission lines, wind turbines, and utility-scale solar plants, which will all require expedited permits.
Just how bad are NEPA rules? Federal permitting for the average highway project takes seven years to complete. A Council on Environmental Quality report found the average length for reviews completed between 2010 and 2017 lasted four and a half years, double what it was in the 1970s. The same report found that the average length of an environmental impact statement was more than 600 pages. That’s why the North America’s Building Trades Unions says NEPA is such a headache, noting that rules “far too often prevent project sponsors, our hard working members, and the public from realizing the benefits of impactful investments in all manner of projects.”
While NEPA has historically been used against fossil fuel projects, permitting delays have recently become the single largest obstacle to delivering the sustainable, green energy infrastructure needed to slash carbon emissions. These projects include Project Icebreaker in Ohio, which would be North America’s first fresh water wind farm but has been mired, and maybe shelved, due to a regulation-related lawsuit; Vineyard Wind Project in Massachusetts, whose 2022 start date failed to take place because of federal delays; and Allison Creek Hydroelectric Project in Alaska, whose potential hydropower was held up for five years, robbing its community of valuable clean electricity.
If the U.S. is to win on climate and build new infrastructure, the answer lies in the partnerships we can build between our private and public sector. For example, collaboration with governments and private sector innovations have reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 21% below 2005 levels. To win on climate, we need to innovate, using America’s vast energy resources and technology to create real, practical solutions. It will take not just more renewable power, but infrastructure projects like electricity transmission lines and pipelines that make our country more energy secure and keep electricity costs down. Today, NEPA stands in their way.
Let’s hope members can make good on their promise to give permitting reform a civil and fair vote. After all, climate solutions and boosting America’s infrastructure are not Republican or Democratic issues, but ones that should unite Americans. We need real solutions, not lawsuits and red tape, to lower carbon emissions, create jobs, and leave a cleaner world for our children.
—Baron Hill served as the representative for Indiana’s 9th congressional district from 1999–2005 and 2007–2011, and was a senior member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.