Biden budget seeks permitting money as lawmakers eye deal

By Kelsey Brugger | 03/12/2024 06:39 AM EDT

The White House requested more than $1 billion for permitting efforts Monday as negotiators craft legislation on Capitol Hill.

President Joe Biden is seen with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) during the State of the Union.

President Joe Biden is seen with Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) during last week's State of the Union address. Francis Chung/POLITICO

As Congress is holding renewed discussions on permitting overhaul, President Joe Biden on Monday asked lawmakers for more than $1 billion to strengthen environmental review and permitting processes across the government.

The request, tucked into the administration’s non-binding fiscal 2025 budget documents, is a relative drop in the bucket as far as federal spending goes. Still, the White House said it wants to continue to advance clean energy projects across the country and off the coasts.

The administration said the money would “support environmental review and permitting processes that are effective, efficient, and transparent, guided by science and shaped by early and meaningful public engagement and input.”


The request aligns with arguments from Democrats, who say that more resources are needed at federal agencies to ensure environmental review does not get bogged down in bureaucratic morass. Permitting overhaul is seen as crucial in achieving Biden’s clean energy goals.

Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) said last week that both Congress and the White House will need to work together to forge a compromise.

“It’s not just the legislative branch. It’s not just the executive branch. It’s the combination of both,” he said.

Push in Congress

The president’s fiscal 2025 budget ask comes as top lawmakers have been meeting more regularly in hopes of forging a deal by year’s end.

Leading the effort is Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has recently renewed his crusade for a bipartisan package. He has been meeting with the committee’s ranking member, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

Advocates and others have for months expressed skepticism that a politically feasible package could happen in an election year. Some have wondered to what extent the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over longstanding environment statutes like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, has to be involved. Republicans want changes to those laws, particularly to make it easier to build pipelines running across state lines.

Both Carper and EPW ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) confirmed last week that they are talking “frequently.”

“We’ve got some ideas that we put forward to his team,” Capito said. “So we’re waiting to hear back from them. It’s an active discussion for sure.”

She said she hopes Congress addresses judicial review shot clocks and clean water permits, though she admitted the latter might be more difficult.

“That maybe be a bridge too far — we might have to do a more simple thing, but we’ve got some ideas out there,” she said.

She predicted a deal could come together by the end of year — aka the post-election lame duck Congress — “if at all.”

Asked if he’s been meeting on the topic regularly, Caper said yes: “And I hope to continue to be so that we’re successful.”

For several years now, Democrats and Republicans have failed to come to an agreement on a broad compromise bill, mostly because “permitting” means different things to each party.

For Republicans, it means faster environmental reviews for fossil fuel projects. For Democrats, it means building out grid capacity for a host of new, renewable sources. Changes to mining laws are also in the mix.

Transmission asks from Dems

As informal bipartisan talks continue, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said he has been working on combining his bill, the “Streamlining Interstate Transmission of Electricity (SITE) Act,” S. 946, with one that’s similar to legislation from Sen. Martin Heinrich’s (D-N.M.). One of Heinrich’s bills on the issue is the “Interregional Transmission Planning Improvement Act,” S.1748.

The idea is to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission new siting authorities under the Federal Power Act for grid build-out. Interstate fights have killed past projects.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) is also hoping to get traction for his own transmission bill, dubbed the “BIG WIRES Act,” S. 2827.

“I think what the key is, is we gotta get the [transmission permitting] bill passed, … but getting the bill passed will be dependent on making sure it’s funded, so hopefully these things go hand and hand,” he said.

At this point, however, some Democrats are skeptical Republicans will ever make a deal.

“I am absolutely open for business but have not seen any willingness from them to do anything meaningful on transmission,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Color me open-minded but realistic, because every time they come to us, it’s a priority list from the American Petroleum Institute.”

At an Axios Pro Energy event last week, retiring House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) suggested progress was being made, even if piecemeal.

“I think it’ll probably be more sector by sector,” she said. “We’re going to negotiate on pipelines, which we’re actively working with the Senate right now.”

An Energy and Commerce subcommittee last week passed a reauthorization of the nation’s pipeline safety regulator, which would also give FERC new authorities in pushing pipeline permits. Democrats opposed the bill.

McMorris Rodgers said the Biden administration has failed to implement permitting changes contained in last year’s debt ceiling deal, making it harder for a larger package to come together. Democrats have dismissed such criticism.

‘An essential step’

The budget request offers more of a glimpse into the president’s election-year vision than a realistic expectation for what Congress will enact.

But the document gives the president the opportunity to emphasize what he’s done to spur clean energy development and what more he wants to achieve.

The $1 billion would be divvied up among federal agencies. The small but influential Permitting Council — which has doubled in staff size in recent years after an influx of $350 million from the Inflation Reduction Act — asked for $9 million. The council facilitates environmental review at the agencies.

“Permitting is an essential step in the delivery of these projects,” Permitting Council Executive Director Eric Beightel told E&E News.

“In order for us to make the transition to a clean energy economy, we have to permit these projects, and we have to do it in a way that ensures we account for those who are affected by these projects,” he said.

“We have to do it in a way that promises positive environmental outcomes. … We have to ensure we have the capacity and the high-skilled staff available to do the work the right way.”

Reporter Andres Picon contributed.