More permitting bills surface amid debt ceiling drama

By Kelsey Brugger | 06/01/2023 06:36 AM EDT

Democrats are set on securing legislation to bolster the electric grid, and Republicans want action on water and pipelines.

Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is the latest lawmaker to introduce energy permitting bills. Francis Chung/E&E News

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich is expected to release two bills Thursday to enhance the nation’s grid, a bid to keep momentum going on permitting reform and to move beyond what was hammered out in the debt ceiling bill.

The measures, which were shared with E&E News ahead of introduction, aim to tackle problems with transmission lines.

One, the “Grid Resiliency Tax Credit Act,” would provide a 30 percent investment tax credit over the next decade to boost large-scale transmission projects.


The other, the “Facilitating America’s Siting of Transmission and Electric Reliability (FASTER) Act,” would address siting and permitting delays to cut down on the time it takes to build high-voltage lines across huge swaths of land.

“To meet our nation’s full potential as a global leader in the clean energy transition and to replace rapidly aging electric infrastructure, we are going to need to invest in building many more transmission lines,” Heinrich said.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) will introduce companion legislation in the House, his office said.

The proposals land as top Republicans on Wednesday said President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) agreed to tackle pieces of the permitting puzzle that were left on the debt ceiling cutting room floor.

But that maneuvering could soon force Democrats to support more changes to landmark environmental statues in exchange for getting Republicans to support grid reforms.

“There is an urgency,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who suggested there would be a bipartisan, bicameral task force on permitting.

“The White House acknowledged that they have a major problem on transmission. They do. They are exactly right,” he said.

The “Fiscal Responsibility Act,” which passed the House Wednesday night, includes long-sought Republican asks such as fast-tracking environmental reviews for energy projects as well as the final approval of the Mountain Valley pipeline, which runs from West Virginia to Virginia.

Even though negotiators tried to wedge in transmission language, a possible bill in the mix — from Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) — was ultimately struck and replaced by a two-year study from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“What was added to this bill by folks on our team [at the White House] looks out for the interests of energy producers at the expense of energy consumers and I remain troubled by that,” said Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), who has his own bill to fix transmission lines.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a senior member of the Natural Resources Committee, said the debt deal shows what Democrats are up against.

“What that says is there will be another round of negotiations to get that — probably with the wrong people in the room once again, and who knows what we’ll give away to get that the next time,” said Huffman.

‘It isn’t going to hurt us’

Huffman, like Casten, suggested Democrats didn’t have environmental policy experts at the negotiating table who might have advocated for the best permitting deal sought by clean energy advocates.

In recent days, some on the left have argued Republicans proposed the study to actually slow things down, but Peters — who is an environmental attorney — doubted it. “I think that people were trying to do something on transmission,” he said. “This was the most they could get. It was a nice try, but it clearly didn’t get us very far. The study isn’t going to help us. It isn’t going to hurt us.”

Asked if he thought Congress would do something more substantial, he said simply: “We have to.”

Republicans have other ideas. They want to shorten the window for groups to challenge major energy projects in court. That’s an idea Graves included in his “BUILDER Act” but didn’t make the debt ceiling deal cut.

Republicans also want to amend Section 401 of the Clean Water Act to prevent states from blocking energy projects through water quality certifications. Graves said the White House has already agreed to changes.

“So I think that’s why we have some bipartisan issues cutting both ways to continue the conversation,” said Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).

Heinrich bills

More specifically, Heinrich’s first bill would create tax incentives for transmission projects and “critical transmission subcomponents” while avoiding incentives for smaller localized projects, according to his office. The projects that would apply include new transmission, modifications and parts used for interconnection.

The second bill, the “FASTER Act,” would try to speed up the process of building the grid; Heinrich gives a nod to “meaningful engagement with private landowners.”

“If we want to meet the full scale of this opportunity, we need to go further and faster,” Heinrich said in a statement. “That does not mean greenlighting every project. It just means getting to a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ in less than a decade — not a decade and a half.”

The legislation has some similarities to a proposal from EPW Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.). It included two-year timelines for projects solely focused on climate mitigation.

A plan from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) would be more technology-neutral — meaning it does not favor renewable energy over fossil fuels.

Manchin, the Energy and Natural Resources chair, said he wanted to pick the best aspects of all permitting bills and get a bipartisan product on the floor by the summer.

‘Pain in the ass’

Graves said might be an overly ambitious timeline.

“Look, if we can kick it out next month. That’d be great,” he said. “I just don’t see a pathway to getting consensus before August.”

Casten said, “We’re going to need a lot of work from the White House and the Senate going forward to undo some of the damage.”

Alluding to Manchin and other West Virginia lawmakers, Casten said, “The lesson of the Mountain Valley pipeline is that you need to be a huge pain in the ass … We need to fight harder for the stuff that matters.”

Reporter Emma Dumain contributed.