Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
the national interest

Why Are Environmental Activists Trying to Block Green Energy?

The climate justice movement has lost the plot.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One of the conditions Joe Manchin attached for supporting the largest climate-change investment in U.S. history was a separate vote to enact permitting reform. (What is permitting reform? It means speeding up the regulatory process that builders must navigate to approve new projects.)

Opposition to permitting reform has become a rallying cry for many environmental activists. Progressives are pushing a resolution by the Democratic National Committee to oppose permitting reform and holding a rally in Washington, D.C.

“The environmental-justice community is very concerned these permitting rules will make it a lot easier to keep the fossil-fuel projects that are polluting their communities. So they’re pretty torqued,” a Democratic senator told The Hill.

The environmental-justice committee is out of its mind. Without permitting reform, the green-energy transition stands no chance of happening.

Compared to our peer countries, the U.S. pays more to build almost any kind of infrastructure — roads, buildings, trains, whatever. The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act is a major reason why. The law requires environmental-impact statements before approving new projects. Over the years, the requirements have grown more elaborate and courts have ruled that individuals have a right to bring legal action to block any new project on environmental-impact grounds.

Brink Lindsey and Samuel Hammond explain how these requirements have grown far more onerous over time:

In the early days, NEPA’s procedural requirements were modest: An EIS could be as short as 10 pages, and the legislation didn’t provide for a private right of action. Courts soon declared a private right of action, though, and under the pressure of litigation the law’s demands grew ever more onerous: Today the average EIS runs more than 600 pages, plus appendices that typically exceed 1,000 pages. The average EIS now takes 4.5 years to complete; between 2010 and 2017, four such statements were completed after delays of 17 years or more. And remember, no ground can be broken on a project until the EIS has made it through the legal gauntlet — and this includes both federal projects and private projects that require a federal permit. Meanwhile, the far more numerous environmental assessments (the federal government performs more than 12,000 of them a year, compared to 20-something Environmental Impact Statements) have likewise become much lengthier and more time-consuming to complete.

NEPA still commands the support of a large number of environmental groups, and “environmental review” sounds like the kind of process environmentalists should support. But keep in mind that the law was written well before combating climate change became a major environmental priority. And it reflects an antiquated idea of small-c conservative environmentalism designed to preserve the built environment as it exists that makes the rapid transformation to green energy impossible.

NEPA supporters like to focus on the fact that permitting reform will enable fossil-fuel infrastructure as well as green-energy projects, which is true. But green energy is growing far cheaper than fossil fuels — a process accelerated by subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act. New energy infrastructure is going to be disproportionately green. As Ramez Naam points out, the main barrier to transitioning to clean energy is not the cost of those technologies but the regulatory barriers to building the infrastructure.

As things stand now, according to Alan Cole, the U.S. has 42 megawatts of offshore wind production running, 932 megawatts under construction, and 18,581 megawatts awaiting permitting approval. Permitting is the force that makes even the most economical green-energy projects vulnerable to delays.

The permitting process can have an environmental sheen. But a wind farm off the shore of Martha’s Vineyard has faced years of delays from homeowners who don’t want to have to look at wind turbines off in the distance. They are suing to block the project, claiming it will disrupt ocean wildlife. Donald Trump, of course, likes to attack wind turbines on the grounds that they kill birds, which they do but in tiny numbers. The legal framework prioritizes even the most obscure and minimal impact on animal life over human needs — including the need to reduce carbon emissions.

A transmission line running a measly 102 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin has been held up since 2011 over permitting and environmental lawsuits. “Environmental groups say the line would damage sensitive floodplain habitat in the upper Mississippi River,” reports The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, building new wind and solar farms is going to require a gigantic increase in transmission lines to get this energy to where people live. Environmentalists can prioritize that, or they can prioritize protecting sensitive floodplain habitat from even minor disruptions.

Justin Guay, director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, told Rolling Stone that the permitting deal is “a side deal with a coal baron that the climate movement neither recognizes nor honors.” That these activists are still describing Manchin as a coal baron even after he votes for the largest green-energy subsidies in U.S. history is indicative of their mentality.

Rolling Stone argues that the campaign to sink permitting reform will “force moderate Dems to acknowledge the many frontline activists who are angry and feel betrayed by the side-deal.” What are they angry about other than coal baron-ness?

Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, told Rolling Stone, “Look, I want to get carbon out of the atmosphere, but this is such an opportunity to remake our society. But if we just perpetuate the same harms in a clean-energy economy, and it’s just a world of Exxons and Elon Musks — oh, man, what a nightmare.”

The “nightmare” is that we transition to a clean-energy economy but continue to have corporations making money off of it. If you can’t fathom how this mentality makes any sense, some left-wing activists decided that the only way to truly solve the climate crisis was to end capitalism. The linkage between these two goals became definitional in their minds. (This was embedded in some versions of the Green New Deal, which swept in massive social-spending programs unrelated to climate on the theory that socialism was the only answer.) A plan to speed up the green-energy transition without upending capitalism is therefore a terrifying prospect to them.

The good news is that most of the climate hawks in the Senate Democratic Caucus are ignoring these environmental activists. Brian Schatz, Martin Heinrich, and Ron Wyden all support permitting reform as a necessary measure to enable that green-energy projects they’ve funded actually get built. But Bernie Sanders opposes it, and House progressives are making angry noises.

As astonishing as it may sound, at the moment, the greatest enemy of the green-energy revolution is climate-change activists and their progressive allies.

Why Are Environmental Activists Trying to Stop Green Energy?