Building anything in the United States requires navigating a rainforest of red tape. The primary stumbling block is the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federally funded projects to go through a grueling environmental review process. Mandatory impact studies can run hundreds of pages, cost millions of dollars and take years to complete. Faced with such a busy, costly business, many projects don’t get started at all. Others suffer seemingly endless legal challenges.
Green energy projects are no exception. Wind, hydro, geothermal, solar, nuclear: however desirable such endeavors—even for the government itself—are no match for the sheer crippling power of state and federal rules. Permitting now takes nearly three years on average for renewable energy projects, while the preparation time for impact statements increased by more than 50% between 2000 and 2018. The uncertainty inherent in this process imposes incalculable additional costs.
Without change, this system could thwart Biden’s climate goals. By one estimate, the funding in last year’s IRA and infrastructure bill should be enough to reduce US emissions to 42% below 2005 levels, close to the president’s goal of a 50% reduction by 2030. However, green energy companies argue – convincingly – that these goals are not possible without allowing reform. And just one example: High-voltage transmission capacity will need to increase by about 60% by 2030. Under current rules, such a buildup could easily take twice as long.
He credited West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, next, for making allowing reform a priority. Last summer, as the IRA debate intensified, Manchin offered the Democratic leaders a deal: He would vote for their big spending in return for their pledge to reconsider the permit issue in the future. Both sides agreed and Manchin duly submitted his proposal as part of an ongoing resolution in September.
Among other things, the plan would have placed time limits on environmental assessments, created a list of projects of “strategic national importance” for priority review, and given the federal government more power over permitting transmission lines. (Not coincidentally: It would have also accelerated approval of the natural gas pipeline that crosses West Virginia.) After a showdown with Senate Republicans, the package quickly died.
Still, both Biden and the Republican leaders say action to allow reform of some kind remains a priority. By fixing some flaws in Manchin’s proposal, they should be able to strike a deal.
For a start, any such deal must do away with the idea of time limits; On the contrary, truncated revisions can actually lead to worse delays by encouraging more lawsuits. Instead, Congress should make it difficult to link the projects to questionable legal action. In particular, it should shorten the statute of limitations for such lawsuits, strengthen stand-by litigation requirements, and limit the ability of courts to issue injunctive orders on projects that have already undergone significant environmental review.
After that, the clean energy economy will depend heavily on expanding transportation capacity. However, it is all too easy for new power lines to be impeded by narrow state and local interests. The best bet is for Congress to pass some version of the SITE Act, which would empower a single federal regulator to oversee large interstate transportation projects in the national interest.
Finally, across federal agencies, new efforts are needed to maximize waivers, speed reviews, and prioritize clean energy projects, an undertaking that above all requires leadership. Elected officials are quick to label climate change an “existential threat.” They should show more urgency.