Democrats’ agreement to move ahead with a tax-and-climate economic package included the promise of separate legislation—expected to move this fall—that would accomplish a bipartisan goal to speed up environmental permitting.
The efforts to overhaul permitting through legislation is a recognition that the federal government doesn’t have adequate tools to expedite the process, according to a Trump-era official who was involved in the permitting talks.
The statutory changes in the eventual legislation “won’t be earth-shattering,” said Alex Herrgott, who led the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC) under President Donald Trump and provided technical assistance during the White House and congressional negotiations. But they will be offered as a law, rather than an executive order, meaning they’ll have more teeth and will be more enduring if passed by Congress.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), in a Wednesday statement announcing a separate agreement on the economic policy package, said that President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also “committed to advancing a suite of common sense permitting reforms this fall that will ensure all energy infrastructure, from transmission to pipelines and export facilities, can be efficiently and responsibly built to deliver energy safely around the country and to our allies.”
A joint statement from Schumer and Manchin on Wednesday said the Democratic leaders agreed to “pass comprehensive permitting reform legislation before the end of this fiscal year.”
The White House has sought ways to move permitting along faster, especially now that $1.2 trillion from the bipartisan infrastructure law is going out the door. Much of that money is being used on projects the Biden administration favors, such as renewable energy and water infrastructure.
‘No Silver Bullet’
The promise of a vote on legislation shows a recognition by congressional leaders and the White House that existing mechanisms such as FPISC—which tries to iron out conflicts between various agencies early in the permitting process, but whose services are offered on a voluntary basis—aren’t enough to put a meaningful dent in permitting timelines, said Herrgott, now president of The Permitting Institute, a pro-development organization.
“There is no silver bullet to fixing the eight to 10 years it takes for a project to go from funding to shovel-in-the-ground,” he said. “Which is why, from the outset, early this spring, the staff that created the permitting elements of this proposal have identified a suite of practical and cost-cutting changes to current laws sourced from developers, labor, and impacted communities, built for bipartisan support.”
Herrgott also described the coming bill as the “legislative complement” to the permitting action plan the White House rolled out in May. That document lays out timelines for projects to be reviewed and permitted, creates dashboards so the public can track where projects stand, and calls for the hiring of more federal permitting and reviewing staff.
In a May Senate hearing, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said the action plan broadly seeks to embrace “that old saying—measure twice, cut once.”
Manchin has pushed for changes to permitting regulations throughout his negotiations with Democrats over the economic package. He also pursued changes to make reviews quicker in separate negotiations with Republicans on a bipartisan energy and climate package earlier this year.
Environmental groups reacted with strong skepticism to the permitting aspects of Manchin’s deal with other Democrats.
“As a coal baron, Manchin wants permitting changes that would ramp up mining and drilling at the worst possible time for our planet,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “His bargain will set our nation backward in its efforts to address the climate crisis and further environmental justice.”
Inflation, Recession Motivators
The pledge to speed up permitting through legislation is also being driven by growing inflation and the fear of a recession, said Herrgott.
In April, CEQ finalized a rule that turns back some of the changes to the nation’s environmental permitting laws put in place under the Trump administration. Included in the new rule under the National Environmental Policy Act is a provision requiring agencies to consider the climate-change impacts of a proposed project, as well as the consequences of additional pollution in communities that are already overburdened.
Many conservatives have said those changes—as well as a second group of changes expected later this year that are likely to go even further—have the paradoxical effect of slowing down projects that Biden has tagged as top priorities, including renewable energy.
Earlier this month, all 50 Senate Republicans entered a joint resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act to strike down the NEPA changes.