Democrats scoff at Republican permitting plan

By Emma Dumain, Kelsey Brugger | 03/01/2023 06:23 AM EST

At a House Natural Resources hearing on permitting, some Democrats said they were open to an overhaul. But one lawmaker called the current GOP product “Not it.”

Representative Bruce Westerman banging a gavel on a dais, with Representative Raul Grijalva seated to his left.

House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) during a hearing Tuesday. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Republicans looking for Democratic buy-in to overhaul federal permitting for energy projects will need to try harder — or resign themselves to a partisan project.

At a House Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday, Democrats expressed skepticism of the GOP plan, which would make dramatic changes to the National Environmental Policy Act as a vehicle for permitting reform.

But Democrats were somewhat divided on the matter, too. In one camp were those adamantly opposed to the prospect under any circumstances. Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) accused Republicans of selectively identifying projects delayed by NEPA to make it appear as though the problem is more widespread than it actually is.


“So you can imagine my skepticism,” Grijalva said, “when I hear about the need to accelerate environmental reviews through the so-called permitting reform, and see bills that allow the fossil fuel industry to pollute when and where it wants without having to tell the public too much about it.”

And in another camp were committee Democrats who said they’d like to improve energy permitting capabilities but not with the approach being endorsed by the GOP.

“If we’ve learned one thing about permitting reform over the last year, there is bicameral, bipartisan interest in getting it done,” said Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), but she called the current product “Not it.”

“We understand that permitting is too important across the country — it’s too urgent for this Congress — to spend time on partisan bills and one-sided legislative packages that will go nowhere,” she added.

The draft bill is called the “Building United States Infrastructure Through Limited Delays and Efficient Reviews (BUILDER) Act.”

It would seek to speed up environmental reviews that can currently delay permits for energy projects, including wind and solar, by requiring regulators to rely on existing “reliable” data rather than conduct lengthy new research. It would also allow project sponsors to assist in conducting environmental reviews and limit lawsuits that could slow down processes.

Representative Garrett Graves, standing, conversing with a seated Paul Gosar.
Reps. Garret Graves (R-La.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). | Francis Chung/POLITICO

The permitting overhaul effort from Republicans comes after Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) failed to advance his own permitting bills last year. While many Senate Democrats were on board, House progressives like Grijalva helped sink it. Now, members of both parties have said they are open to trying again, but remain divided on how to get there.

At the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) said he liked the “BUILDER Act’s” “designation of a new federal agency [and] establishing a literal process for cooperating between agencies and NEPA reviews.”

However, he continued, “I also have concerns. I know this is an opening salvo, if you will … but any proposal to limit the scope of NEPA review, I think, requires a pretty serious discussion. The proposal to restrict the ability to assess potential climate impacts … that’s problematic. Impeding opportunities for judicial review, I think, is problematic.”

Republicans emphasized Tuesday that the bill, led by Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), was a discussion draft, and that this was a hearing, not a markup.

Graves, who has introduced other versions of the bill in previous congresses, described the Tuesday session as an opportunity to solicit feedback and improve the product.

“I am absolutely all ears with regards to somebody who wants to bring knowledge of NEPA, who has actually participated in the process,” Graves told E&E News on Tuesday evening.

Yet it’s not clear what concessions either party might be willing to make as Republicans barrel toward an end-of-March timeline for a House floor vote on a sweeping energy package. The “BUILDER Act” is its centerpiece.

Graves said he intended to revisit portions of his bill after the Tuesday hearing, including a section on how a community alongside a new energy project might or might not have access to information about how they would be affected by that project.

Such a scenario was brought to his attention by the Democratic witness, John Beard — the founder, president and executive director of the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas.

But Graves seemed otherwise intent on standing by his product, accusing Democrats of “inventing” complaints to undermine the effort.

Sniping at Biden

House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) has said repeatedly he desires a bipartisan product, if for no other reason than to ensure there’s a path for permitting legislation in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

He suggested the “BUILDER Act” should be a commonsense proposition: “We want to amend NEPA — not gut it or eradicate it — and make it a law that provides robust environmental protections without bogging projects down in rounds of red tape and litigation … I ask any member on the Democrat dais: If not NEPA reform, then what?”

Westerman and Graves were also eager to remind their Democratic colleagues that Biden administration officials have warned the billions of dollars earmarked for clean and renewable infrastructure developments in the Inflation Reduction Act would be held up indefinitely without changes to NEPA.

But Westerman could not resist an opportunity to disparage the Biden administration for failing to participate in the hearing.

White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory, who was invited by Republicans to testify Tuesday, did not attend, and Republicans retaliated by setting a seat for her at the witness table so they could gesture to an empty chair.

“CEQ didn’t even submit written testimony, which tells me they’re ashamed of what they’re doing, they don’t know what they’re doing or they don’t care what they’re doing,” Westerman said. “They’re not at the table.”

Nameplate for Brenda Mallory.
A nameplate for Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory during a hearing Tuesday. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Democrats challenged Westerman on whether he had given Mallory sufficient time to prepare to testify, specifically the customary advanced warning of 14 days. They also disputed whether Mallory would have had time to review the discussion draft, which was just released last week and “applies to 80 different federal agencies.”

In a statement to E&E News, CEQ spokesperson Alyssa Roberts said, “while we appreciated the invitation, the Committee didn’t share the bill that Chair Mallory was asked to testify on until it was introduced last week. We kindly informed the Committee we need adequate time to review a bill before submitting testimony.”

Furthermore, said Roberts, “we also made clear that Chair Mallory was called for jury duty on February 28th and would not be available on that day.”

Westerman’s indictment of Mallory stood in stark contrast with Graves’ praise of former National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and current U.S. climate envoy John Kerry. He said he’s had positive conversations about permitting efforts with both, including making changes to how environmental challenges are litigated.

“John Kerry was talking about litigation reform, and I’m just like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is crazy,’” Graves said, describing his surprise. “I do think there are folks that recognize this needs to happen. You’ve seen Democrats that have been quoted in the press in recent weeks and months that have indicated the need to do permitting reform.”

‘Not serious’

Lawmakers were testing the prospects of bipartisan compromise earlier in the day Tuesday, when the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources took stock of two other bills relating to energy production and permitting, which are also candidates for inclusion in the broader GOP energy package.

The “Permitting for Mining Needs Act of 2023,” H.R. 209, would shorten the hardrock mining permitting review process under NEPA and bar lawsuits against permitting decisions more than 120 days after such a decision has been made.

The “Transparency and Production of American Energy Act of 2023” would expand oil and gas lease sales — on federal lands as well as in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska region — and fast-track permitting for pipelines, renewable energy and other projects.

Separately, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a markup on accelerating Clean Water Act permits and two Energy and Commerce subcommittees approved more than a dozen bills — all part of the GOP permitting and energy agenda.

Ultimately, the sessions underscored how Democrats were struggling to reconcile their desire for expanded renewable energy project permitting with the framework Republicans were presenting.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who hails from a Midwestern manufacturing state, raised eyebrows earlier this month when she declared she might support opening up NEPA, which was written by her late husband, the longtime Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).

However, she dismissed the Republicans’ suite of proposals as “not serious.”

“I know we’ve got to modernize our laws, but we’ve got to do it in a way that protects original intent, but also makes it better,” she said. “These don’t.”

Debbie Dingell raising a finger to speak during a meeting.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Democrats like Dingell find themselves threading the needle: They acknowledge things have changed since some of the country’s bedrock environmental laws were enacted in the 20th and even 19th centuries, but oppose “gutting” NEPA reviews for major projects.

In an interview, she said that when she didn’t support the Green New Deal, “The kids went after me.”

Dingell said she later brought together environmentalists, union reps and others to find common ground.

“That’s what I’m going to do on [permitting],” Dingell said.