America’s green transition has a red-tape problem.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 directed hundreds of billions of dollars toward renewable energy and green infrastructure. But money isn’t everything. Thanks to the IRA’s tax credits, investors have the will to build up the low-carbon economy. But they don’t always have a way. All across the country, well-funded decarbonization efforts are tangled up in thickets of regulations and legal challenges.
The amount of offshore wind power currently tied up in permitting fights in the U.S. is about 20 times greater than all of the offshore wind power currently in operation or under construction. Solar developments, meanwhile, routinely die at the hands of NIMBY opposition even in ostensibly liberal and climate-conscious areas. As of 2021, 42 percent of all projects stalled by the National Environmental Policy Act’s review process involved green infrastructure or conservation.
Decarbonizing the U.S. economy requires building lots of new transmission lines between disparate regional electric grids. Such lines would help to compensate for renewable energy’s dependence on favorable weather conditions. It isn’t always sunny in Philadelphia nor always windy in Chicago. But on any given day, it is usually either sunny or windy somewhere in the U.S. With a nationally integrated grid, the U.S. can capitalize on its meteorological diversity and maximize the renewable share of its energy consumption. Without such a grid, solar farms in sunny places generate more electricity than they can use while utilities in cloudy areas are forced to burn more natural gas.
For this reason, among others, the U.S. needs to build transmission lines at twice its current rate to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. Yet over the past decade, America’s rate of transmission construction has actually slowed. And construction of transmission lines that traverse regions has been especially sluggish for a simple reason: To build a transmission line under existing rules, developers must win the permission of every state, country, city, and potentially litigious landowner whose territory that line touches.
Thus, there is no way to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy without streamlining the permitting process for green projects.
This year, there was exactly one piece of federal legislation that both reduced the regulatory obstacles to building green infrastructure and had some Republican support in the Senate — a precondition for passing any regulatory reform. Congress’s most ardent climate hawks helped kill it.
Their opposition was understandable. But in my view, it was illustrative of flaws in many progressives’ analysis of the climate problem.
Why progressives rejected Joe Manchin’s permitting-reform bill.
The bill in question was a permitting-reform proposal championed by West Virginia senator (and fossil-fuel magnate) Joe Manchin. Congress voted down that legislation in September — thanks, in part, to progressive opposition. Democratic leaders tried to revive the bill this month by adding a modified version of it to the National Defense Authorization Act. House progressives vowed to vote down the NDAA if it included Manchin’s language. House Republicans refused to compensate for their defections, largely because they believe they’ll be able to pass a version of permitting reform that’s friendlier to the fossil-fuel industry next year, when the GOP takes control of the House.
Manchin’s initial proposal had been modified to secure additional Republican support in the Senate. In its new form, the bill would have:
• Lowered the National Environmental Policy Act’s obstacles to infrastructure development of all kinds. The bill set a two-year time limit on the NEPA reviews of major infrastructure developments and a one-year cap on those of minor projects. The bill also required court challenges to agency-permitting decisions to be filed within five months of those decisions instead of six years, as the current statute of limitations allows. Currently, the average review time for renewable-energy projects is 2.7 years. Some projects, such as the Cape Wind development, can get tied up in the NEPA-related litigation for upward of 15 years.
• Made it easier to build transmission lines. The bill empowered the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to resolve a perennial obstacle to the construction of interregional lines: the question of who must pay for a transmission line that spans multiple states. Typically, transmission lines are built by utilities, which pass along the costs to their ratepayers. But if a transmission line crosses multiple states — and primarily benefits one while doing little for the other — the latter’s utility commission will often block approval to prevent its energy consumers from suffering a rate hike. Manchin’s bill let FERC resolve such disputes by allocating the costs of construction on the basis of which energy customers stood to benefit most from the new lines.
Additionally, the bill gave FERC the authority to site transmission lines that are “in the national interest” when either 1) a developer cannot get a state permit because it doesn’t serve in-state customers, or 2) a state cannot site the project or take account of its interregional benefits. (The first iteration of Manchin’s bill featured a much stronger version of this provision, which would have empowered FERC to site any transmission line it deemed to be in the national interest.)
• Expedited permitting for 25 “critical energy projects.” Specifically, the bill required the Department of Energy to identify its top-five mining projects, seven clean-energy projects, six fossil-fuel projects, two carbon-capture projects, three transmission projects, and two clean-hydrogen projects, then give those developments expedited consideration by federal agencies.
• Ensured the construction of Manchin’s favorite pipeline. By most accounts, the West Virginia senator’s primary concern was clearing a path for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 304-mile natural-gas highway that would run from West Virginia through southern Virginia and, theoretically, help offset some of the energy jobs that the Mountain State has lost to coal’s decline.
The pipeline has attracted several lawsuits from groups concerned about its implications for the environment and public health. Earlier this year, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals threw out the permits that the pipeline had previously secured from the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service. Manchin’s bill reinstated those permits and exempted them from further judicial review.
Most progressives supported the bill’s provisions on transmission lines. Some opposed its changes to the NEPA on grounds that they would do more to undermine environmental protection than to abet the green transition. And all condemned the bill’s facilitation of fossil-fuel development. Environmentalists were especially wary of establishing a precedent for the federal government to swipe away legal challenges to a particular fossil-fuel project.
Ultimately, the consensus position among left-wing Democrats was that securing permitting reforms beneficial to green-energy projects was not worth the cost of giving Manchin his pipeline. From the standpoint of decarbonization, however, I don’t think that calculation pencils out.
Manchin’s bill was flawed. Future permitting-reform bills will probably be worse.
As noted above, lowering regulatory barriers to green infrastructure is a precondition for meeting America’s decarbonization goals. Manchin’s bill would have made real, if modest, progress on that front. Although it leaves many state and local obstacles to renewable development in place, the legislation’s reforms for transmission lines would reduce U.S. carbon pollution by substantially,” according to the power-sector consulting firm Grid Strategies. Its changes to the NEPA, meanwhile, would have expedited the approval of renewable-energy projects, especially if Congress subsequently increased the resources available to such agencies in light of new mandates.
Whether it was worthwhile to take these gains in exchange for the bill’s fossil-fuel provisions depended on two questions: Is Congress likely to pass a more progressive permitting-reform bill in the near future? And is slowing fossil-fuel development more important for the climate than expediting green-energy deployment?
The answer to the first question was almost certainly no.
When Congress blocked Manchin’s bill in September, it was still theoretically possible that Democrats would hold the House in the midterm elections while expanding their Senate majority. In that scenario, progressives could imagine securing a permitting-reform bill more heavily weighted in favor of green energy.
But that didn’t happen. Come next year, the Republican Party will control the House. And Democrats’ hopes for retaking full federal control in 2024 are slim. That year, 23 of the 33 senators up for reelection are Democrats. And eight of those Democratic incumbents represent states that are more Republican than the U.S. as a whole — including three states that twice voted for Donald Trump by a landslide. Thus it’s very likely that this Congress represented the high point of progressive leverage over federal legislation for the next four years. Given the nature of the climate problem, waiting until 2028 to pass permitting reform is not a viable option.
For their part, Republicans have been quite clear about the kinds of permitting reforms they’re willing to entertain. Explaining his opposition to Manchin’s bill this week, GOP senator John Barrasso said, “We have a much better opportunity in the next Congress with Republicans in the majority to do true permitting reform that allows for the development of all forms of energy.” E&E News reports that House Republicans are “eager to find partners in the Senate to overhaul permitting on both sides of the aisle when they assume control of the chamber next year.”
It now looks like Manchin’s permitting proposal would have failed irrespective of progressives’ opposition. But the bill did have the support of “at least a handful of GOP senators,” according to E&E. Had Democrats managed to get the bill through the House, it is possible that the various interest groups that stand to benefit from Manchin’s reform might have nudged a critical mass of Republicans behind it.
Regardless, progressives did not know that the bill was doomed when they came out in opposition to it. Their dissent was no symbolic gesture. They believed that the bill might pass with their support. And they chose to withhold that support.
Expediting the clean-energy build-out is more important than slowing fossil-fuel development.
Given the dismal prospects for passing a more progressive version of permitting reform in the coming years, progressives’ opposition to Manchin’s bill can only be justified if one posits that eliminating obstacles to clean-energy development is less important than maintaining obstacles to new fossil-fuel infrastructure.
From a climate perspective, it’s hard to see how that could be the case. Keeping the U.S. dependent on fossil fuels requires building virtually no new infrastructure, since the existing energy system is designed around carbon power. By contrast, making the U.S. run on low-carbon energy — in time to meet the nation’s decarbonization goals — requires the rapid construction of vast constellations of solar panels and wind turbines, transmission lines, geothermal plants, and possibly advanced nuclear facilities, among other things. Therefore, a regulatory regime that favors stasis is necessarily one that favors fossil fuels.
That isn’t mere speculation. Today, there are more than twice as many green projects as fossil-fuel projects held up by the NEPA reviews under federal jurisdiction.
Just this week, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced that it will replace its Cumberland coal plant in 2026 with a natural-gas plant. The TVA is eliminating that coal plant out of a commitment to decarbonization. Yet it concluded that it would not be feasible to replace the plant’s power with renewables in the necessary timeframe. Doing so would have required the TVA to nearly double its rate of solar construction and build lengthy new transmission lines and substations. Under the existing permitting process, the utility estimated that such a green build-out would have taken between nine and 11 years.
As the TVA’s decision illustrates, natural-gas plants do not require significant regulatory changes in order to increase their share of power generation. It just doesn’t take a whole lot of new construction to get a gas plant up and running. Renewables, on the other hand, require a ton of new development in order to compete at scale. An America in which it is difficult and time-consuming to build new infrastructure is one where natural-gas plants will replace coal plants — no matter how many new pipelines environmentalists successfully block.
Simply put, unless something is done to ease the construction of new transmission lines and shorten the NEPA review times of renewable projects, the U.S. cannot meet its decarbonization goals.
By comparison, the climate implications of making it a bit easier to build natural-gas pipelines (which already enjoy special regulatory exemptions) is almost negligible. In fact, it is not even clear that obstructing the construction of liquified-natural-gas infrastructure is actually beneficial for the climate at all. Although the subject is controversial, multiple studies have found that increasing U.S. exports of liquified natural gas actually reduces global emissions, as that natural gas displaces coal consumption abroad.
There is a strong belief in environmentalist circles that new fossil-fuel infrastructure effectively “locks in” emissions for the lifetime of that infrastructure. And this is a legitimate concern. But there’s reason to doubt it. Climate hawks’ fundamental challenge is to make clean energy more affordable than (and just as reliable as) carbon power. That can’t be done without permitting reform. But if it is accomplished, the existence of natural-gas pipelines will not stop utilities and investors from abandoning natural gas in favor of more economical energy sources. After all, the existence of coal plants has not stopped utilities from abandoning coal in favor of cheaper, cleaner natural gas.
Saving the climate requires setting priorities.
Progressives are allowed to care about things other than climate change. Many constituencies have legitimate concerns about the immediate environmental and public-health impacts of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and other projects like it.
Yet many progressive opponents of Manchin’s permitting reform officially believe that climate change is an emergency that must take precedence over other governing challenges. And some framed their opposition to the bill as an expression of their commitment to decarbonization. California representative Ro Khanna implored progressives to oppose the bill for the sake of the “communities hit hardest” by the climate crisis.
Yet the communities that will be hit hardest by climate change do not live in the U.S. Rather, they live in low-lying or arid nations with low GDPs and, thus, few resources for shielding their populations from ecological destabilization. Putting such “front line” communities first does not mean preserving the capacity of U.S. localities to force environmental reviews of development projects. It means minimizing climate change.
Manchin’s bill is dead, but permitting reform remains a live issue. To secure the best possible deal on that front in the next Congress — and to serve as effective agents of decarbonization more broadly — progressives will need to rethink both their approach to legislative strategy and their analysis of the climate crisis.
To influence energy policy in a world where Republicans control the House and wield veto power in the Senate, left-wing Democrats will have to be willing to set priorities and make painful concessions for the sake of securing critical reforms. To maximize decarbonization, meanwhile, they will need to prioritize expediting the green-energy build-out over slowing fossil-fuel development.
It is possible that my conception of political reality is wrong. Maybe congressional progressives have a plan for eliminating regulatory obstacles to green development through executive actions alone. There certainly are things that the Biden administration could do under existing law to marginally reduce regulatory burdens (though I don’t think you can tackle the biggest bottlenecks facing clean energy through anything but legislation). Or maybe progressives believe, on the basis of careful analysis, that the IRA will grow America’s green industry so rapidly that, in the next couple of years, Republicans will find themselves compelled to do green capital’s bidding and, therefore, consent to permitting reforms that offer nothing to fossil-fuel firms.
But if left-wing Democrats have a detailed vision for how they can free the green transition from red tape while making fewer concessions to carbon energy than Manchin’s bill would have, few are spelling it out. Rather, most are unequivocally celebrating the failure of a bill that would have made it easier to build solar farms and transmission lines without articulating any politically viable alternative.
There is no decarbonizing the economy without permitting reforms. And there is no way that the federal government will enact permitting reforms that address the specific challenges facing green industry without congressional progressives’ engagement. Voting against any and all concessions to the fossil-fuel industry, even when doing so undermines clean energy’s expansion, may win progressives the plaudits of environmental groups that specialize in obstructing development. But it won’t win future generations a maximally hospitable planet. The U.S. needs its climate hawks to care more about the latter.