In 2018, a Democratic adviser on energy issues introduced two of the only Democratic House candidates on the campaign trail who were running on climate action.
Five years since their “meet cute,” as Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) called it, and subsequent election, he and Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) are teaming up to lead their party in what is currently one of Washington’s thorniest political and policy debates: permitting reform.
“My great frustration … is that we do energy politics in this town and call it energy policy,” Casten reflected recently from his Capitol Hill office, where he sat for a joint interview with Levin.
“What would it mean to do energy policy right, recognizing that we have to do a ton of stuff, which means we have to make sure the permitting process can accommodate deployment at speed?” he continued. “Let’s define that and then make the politics possible. There’s not a lot of other people besides Mike that think that way.”
Their forthcoming bill — the “Clean Electricity Transmission Acceleration Act of 2023,” details of which were shared first with E&E News — is an attempt to do just that.
“It will hopefully resonate across the Democratic caucus,” said Levin, “and maybe with even a few enlightened Republicans who understand that if we build out all this clean transmission, that will actually benefit their districts.”
The bill is a mix of older ideas and new proposals for speeding up permitting for renewable energy projects. It would rely heavily on giving new authorities to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, prioritizing emission-reducing initiatives, mandating input from front-line communities and creating new offices to streamline the greenlighting of projects.
It would draw from bills formally introduced by Senate Democratic leaders in the space, including Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico. It would also include some of the intent of the sweeping “Environmental Justice for All Act,” which was just reintroduced in honor of its champion, the late Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.).
The Casten-Levin proposal is something of a response to H.R. 1, the “Lower Energy Costs Act,” which many see as the Republicans’ opening bid on permitting reform. It passed the House largely along party lines Thursday, though both Democratic lawmakers found not much to like in its treatment of moving proposals through the National Environmental Policy Act. Neither voted for the bill.
“Undermining bedrock environmental laws is the wrong approach; it would actually make things worse,” Levin said in defense of their approach versus the one taken by House Republicans.
The two members are currently working to finalize the text of their legislation and reach out to lawmakers whose previous proposals have inspired sections of their plan. They already have the enthusiastic support of two former FERC chairs, Richard Glick and Jon Wellinghoff, and one-time FERC member Nora Mead Brownell.
“I urge Congress to enact this legislation as soon as possible,” Glick said in a statement provided to E&E News.
Their hope is to parlay their collaborative approach, reputations in the climate policy space on and off Capitol Hill, and relationships across the spectrum of the Democratic caucus to win the support of the majority of their colleagues. Their aspiration is for their bill to be the official permitting proposal from congressional Democrats.
‘Credibility … from experience’
Members from both parties are under no illusions that H.R. 1 can be passed by the Senate or signed into law in its current form, but they also recognize an appetite for bipartisan compromise on a permitting overhaul.
That recognition is leading to a flurry of other new legislative proposals or announcements of legislative proposals in the works.
Congressional Democrats, in particular, are especially eager right now to enter the conversation. They want to formulate a position on the issue as a counterweight to Republicans, who support easing environmental regulations to get energy projects more quickly off the ground.
They want to support the Biden administration, which says changes to the permitting process are necessary for unleashing the investments from the Inflation Reduction Act.
And they don’t want to cede the narrative to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who brought the permitting debate to Capitol Hill and with whom members of his own party share deep disagreements about how to attack the issue.
In that sense, Casten and Levin are no different from the others. But they see themselves as having an edge to be dealmakers in the space and to have their proposal make it to the top of the growing pile of options under consideration.
Both men worked on clean energy deployment through FERC channels in their previous lives: Casten as a clean energy consultant and entrepreneur and Levin, an environmental attorney, as a board member of the Center for Sustainable Energy and co-founder of an organization helping to facilitate the energy transition in California.
They are known for their work on climate issues on Capitol Hill, with both having served as members of the now-disbanded House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. But they’re also known as pragmatists, with Casten a member of the moderate New Democrat Coalition and Levin, as a vulnerable 2024 incumbent, insisting that he doesn’t operate as a flamethrower despite being a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘I have a theory on permitting; it’s based on what a lobbyist told me,’” said Casten. “It’s another thing to have the scars — we’ve both had lengthy interconnection permitting fights. We know who the players are, how to get it done. And I think we can speak to the caucus with the credibility that comes from experience.”
Casten and Levin both said they expect to use their associations with the New Democrat Coalition and the Progressive Caucus to pick up support for their plan. They also co-lead the clean energy deployment task force within the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, a contingent of more than 70 House Democrats working to inform policy and messaging on climate issues — they’ll appeal to the constituency there, too.
“If we get the support of everybody who has written legislation that is a part of this bill, or has previously endorsed bills, we’ve got darn near the whole caucus,” Casten said.
‘Want to talk?’
One lingering question about the fate of the “Clean Electricity Transmission Acceleration Act” is how Casten and Levin hope to square their approach with that of the GOP.
Their bill would deal only with permitting for clean energy projects, but Republicans — and some Democrats, like Manchin — are going to insist on equal treatment for oil and gas.
Casten said just because their current blueprint excludes fossil fuels doesn’t mean there isn’t room to negotiate.
“Biden’s already said he’s going to veto [H.R. 1]; it’s dead on arrival. The Senate isn’t going to take it up,” said Casten. “If you’re serious about permitting reform, you said, ‘This is H.R. 1, this is your showcase thing, I’m telling you this is the most important thing in the country.’ OK. You just blew it.”
Casten waved the one-pager in the air. “Want to talk?”
To that point, their framework includes a section written as a response of sorts to some of the proposed changes in H.R. 1 to the permitting process under NEPA.
The GOP bill would allow project sponsors to write their own environmental impact statements as a way to take the load off beleaguered permitting agencies, a provision critics have argued is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse. The Casten-Levin proposal would, instead, allow sponsors to have their findings taken into consideration by the lead permitting agency.
H.R. 1 would let the permitting agencies rely on a previously conducted environmental analysis to inform their decision about whether to issue a permit; the “Clean Electricity Transmission Acceleration Act” would put guardrails there to clarify that the conditions on the ground must not have changed so dramatically since the previous analysis so as to render that prior study obsolete.
Both bills would designate a lead agency to oversee environmental reviews and create an online portal for permits requiring NEPA oversight.
But Levin made clear that “any piece of legislation I look at through the lens of, ‘Will it reduce greenhouse gas emissions?’ And if it’s not going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that is the exact opposite of what is needed from a climate perspective.”
‘We need a counteroffer’
The Casten-Levin proposal would also create a new Office of Electricity Transmission within FERC; allow FERC to consider the “economic, reliability and climate benefits” of a transmission project when issuing a permit; and give the agency the authority to prioritize siting transmission lines of “national interest.”
It would also require FERC to establish environmental justice liaisons to ensure community input is collected during the permitting process and state that environmental impact statements include, if applicable, “alternatives that do not contribute to adverse cumulative environmental pollution impacts on overburdened communities higher than those borne by other committees in the geographic area.”
A provision of the forthcoming bill that has not previously been seen before in other legislative offerings would mandate that FERC “ensure that electric utilities account for the external cost of greenhouse gas emissions when setting their utility rates.”
Levin was unapologetic about the fact that his and Casten’s bill would only deal with the clean energy permitting aspect, suggesting it wouldn’t do any good to make concessions out of the gate — much like the Republican opening bid didn’t make compromises, either.
“H.R. 1 is a solution in search of problem designed by the fossil fuel lobby,” he said, “And we need a counteroffer … that is focused on the actual problem, which is how we’re going to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets that the president has set forth.”
Casten agreed: “If you start a conversation about permitting by saying, ‘I’m going to take half your baby, you’re going to take half of mine, then we’re going to glue them together,’ you’re not going to end up with a good-looking kid.”