Capitol Hill’s permitting reform effort got new life Wednesday as two top Senate and House lawmakers held an initial summit on reviving the overhaul bid. This time, the House could take the lead.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) are discussing the path forward for the stalled permitting reform effort.
“They’re going to work on something,” Manchin said of the House. “I think it’s a high priority, which both sides know that we need it. Everyone has come to agreement that you got to have permitting. Let’s take the politics out of it, and do what’s doable.”
The talks are part of a broader Capitol Hill trend. Lawmakers from both parties are seeking to relaunch the permitting overhaul push after it ran into a blockade last year from conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats.
Lawmakers hope to build off permitting efforts from Manchin last year, which combined Republicans’ long-sought desire to streamline permitting approval with Democratic interest in unleashing more transmission and renewable energy infrastructure to combat climate change.
In exchange for supporting the reconciliation deal that enabled Democrats to pass $369 billion in climate spending last summer, Manchin secured a promise from Democratic leaders to attach his permitting proposal to a piece of must-pass legislation. The deal included completion of a major priority for Manchin, the Mountain Valley pipeline.
The effort failed multiple times last fall. Republicans were hesitant to back a Democratic deal on permitting that enabled the broader reconciliation package to pass.
They also complained that Manchin’s proposal did not go far enough to help streamline project approval timelines. At the same time, progressive Democrats attacked the proposal from the left, saying it would exacerbate climate change by approving more fossil fuel infrastructure.
This go-around, Manchin told reporters that he would defer at first to House negotiations.
“We’ve been down that road twice; we’ll see what they do,” Manchin said about the House talks. “They are going to do their thing.”
House Republicans, for their part, maintained that they have interest in finding a permitting compromise that can advance as they take control of the chamber this year.
Following the meeting, Westerman told reporters he saw “common ground between Sen. Manchin and myself.”
Stumbling block: NEPA
The new House GOP majority is currently gauging how best to proceed.
Republicans have made no secret that they plan to bring an energy package to the floor this spring, with permitting reform at its center.
Their current plan is to use, as a starting point, legislation introduced in previous sessions of Congress by Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), known as the “Builder Act,” which would achieve the main goals of speeding up permits for energy projects by making changes to the National Environmental Policy Act — the bedrock law many Democrats consider sacrosanct (E&E Daily, Jan. 24).
From there, Republicans could craft a bill that’s little more than a partisan wishlist and dare Democrats to oppose it. They could also choose to engage with more moderate Democrats who want to fashion themselves as bipartisan dealmakers on climate policy and remain committed to finding a compromise on permitting.
Westerman, whose committee will have jurisdiction over permitting reform legislation alongside the committees on Energy & Commerce and Transportation & Infrastructure, said he saw no point in trying to advance a permitting bill that wouldn’t have support from Democrats.
“If we want to get it on President [Joe] Biden’s desk, we’re going to have to have Democrats on board,” Westerman told E&E News earlier in the week. “Do I think we can pass something without Democrat support here in the House? Sure. But you can’t pass it out of the Senate without Democrat support.”
Westerman said he believed that Democrats have “skin in the game” to want to get a deal on permitting, if for no other reason than to speed up the “green infrastructure projects they approved all that money for” as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
“There are going to be some reasonable Democrats who would want to get on board,” he added.
Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), a member of both the Natural Resources and Energy & Commerce committees and the chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus, said he was having conversations with “a number of Democrats who are anxious to engage with me and have a good, productive dialogue” on the matter.
“We’re talking; it’s not clear what that’s going to actually mean yet,” said Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) of conversations he’s had with Republicans to find common ground on permitting reform.
Another Democrat making the rounds across the aisle is Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee and earlier this week devoted his speaking time at the panel’s first hearing to the issue.
In a recent interview with E&E News, Peters said there was “a lot of goodwill” between members of both parties “in trying to work together on permitting reform.”
But Peters and Curtis both said convincing Democrats to come on board would require them to convince the left flank that reopening NEPA wasn’t tantamount to scrapping all environmental protections and that certain adjustments to existing law were necessary to advance more clean energy transmission deployment.
“I think, on the conservative side, they’ve always wanted to reform processes to get to answers faster,” said Peters, “and I think, now, if you’re an environmentalist, you have to be concerned that we don’t have much time to build all these things we have to build … solar, utility-scale solar, public transportation — we have to build things a lot faster, and that’s going to require taking a look at permitting reform. If you’re a climate activist, you have to acknowledge it’s time to look at that.”
Curtis said Republicans had to specifically dispel the “automatic suspicion” among Democrats that “we want to undo NEPA.”
He explained, “We have to be very clear with them. … What we want with NEPA is not to take away the environmental protections; what we want is quicker answers and more certainty once those answers are given. And that should be comfortable for Democrats. But if they feel like we’re coming after environmental protections, they’re going to fight us.”
It’s going to be very hard to take Curtis and others at their word, said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee who, as chair, in the previous Congress led the blockade against Manchin’s permitting reform proposal.
“What is an off-ramp? Grid, accessibility for renewables and alternatives — … to ignore that, which is the [Manchin] proposal, and only concentrate on locking up land for gas and oil at the expense of renewable alternatives, no access to the grid — if people are serious about ‘all of the above,’ you got to include this,” Grijalva said in an interview Wednesday.
Asked if he would accept any changes to NEPA as part of a deal, Grijalva replied simply, “No.”
‘This is not impossible’
Senators late last year came very close to striking a deal, said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, pointing specifically to contributions from Manchin and Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
And although he said he “couldn’t assess the likelihood” of progress now until he sees “how the House is going to behave,” Schatz expressed optimism.
“Substantively, this is not impossible,” he said. He stressed the need for legislation to include provisions to accelerate transmission build-out — otherwise “there’s not much in it for the pro-climate side.”
Capito, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she has talked to “a lot” of Democrats about reviving permitting reform negotiations, including committee Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.).
“Permitting is not just the fossil fuel — not just for pipelines they don’t particularly like,” Capito said of Democrats. “You cannot site a wind farm, a solar farm, if you don’t have transmission.”
Late last year, Capito floated her own permitting bill, which included more aggressive mechanisms to try to speed up the process and limit litigation. She ultimately supported the Manchin plan (E&E Daily, Sept. 13, 2022).
“I do not believe the ship has sailed,” she said Wednesday. “I think there’s total appetite” to try again.
A Carper spokesperson said in an email that Carper “remains committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on permitting reforms that assist our ability to meet our nation’s clean energy goals while also safeguarding critical protections for our environment and the health of our communities.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a centrist dealmaker on Capitol Hill, told E&E News that many people are “starting to realize that the inordinately slow, onerous, cumbersome, burdening permitting process that we have effects not just fossil fuel projects — it affects the sitings of [renewables].”
Manchin’s bill raised the profile of the issue, she said.
The issue might only loom larger as the 2024 election approaches. Democrats are eager to promote their legislative wins, the Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocated hundreds of billions of dollars for clean energy programs and projects.
But if renewable energy project proposals face delays because of permitting issues, that could be a political liability for Democrats, observers said.
“Democrats are going to have to answer for it,” Capito said. “But, they’re going to have to answer for everything.”