President Joe Biden laid out a list of policy priorities Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, but one item missing was a central ambition for many energy-focused lawmakers: permitting reform.
For key members, the failure to mention the ongoing effort to smooth environmental reviews of energy projects was a missed opportunity.
“It’s accepted across the aisle that permitting has to be done,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters. “It should have been mentioned. I would have liked to see that.”
Lawmakers from both parties are seeking to relaunch efforts at a permitting overhaul after it ran into a blockade last year from conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats. Democrats have maintained that permitting reform remains crucial to a full implementation of last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, which contains $369 billion in climate-related spending.
Manchin met with House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) last week to kick-start talks on the matter. Manchin said he would like to see the House take the lead on negotiations (E&E Daily, Feb. 2).
Lawmakers are looking to build off permitting efforts Manchin led last year. The seeds of a deal seem both tantalizingly close and far off. Republicans have long sought to streamline permitting approval for fossil fuel projects, while Democrats are interested in unleashing more transmission and renewable energy infrastructure to combat climate change.
Some Republicans suggested a permitting overhaul wasn’t that big of a priority for the party.
“There were a lot of missed opportunities, like the reality is that Democrats need permitting reform more than Republicans do,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said following the speech.
Biden touted the climate provisions contained in the Inflation Reduction Act during his speech. He noted that more work needs to be done to continue to combat the climate crisis, although he did not lay out specific policies beyond the reconciliation package.
“The climate crisis doesn’t care if your state is red or blue. It is an existential threat,” Biden said about the reconciliation package. “We have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to confront it. I’m proud of how America is at last stepping up to the challenge. But there’s so much more to do. We will finish the job.”
Manchin’s permitting effort failed multiple times last fall despite interest from both sides. Republicans were hesitant to back a Democratic deal on permitting that enabled the broader reconciliation package to pass and said the effort didn’t go far enough.
At the same time, progressive Democrats and activists worked to thwart a deal, fearing that a permitting overhaul would exacerbate climate change by approving more fossil fuel infrastructure (E&E Daily, Oct. 11, 2022).
A leading Republican who had supported Manchin’s permitting efforts was equally disappointed in the lack of a Biden shout-out.
“I did think it was missed opportunity because I think it’s something we all want, both parties,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee. “So, it was just a lot of one-liners that were pretty unimaginative.”
Some Republicans accused Biden of playing to partisan concerns at the expense of permitting.
“Both the left and the right know we need it, but I’m not surprised he didn’t [mention permitting reform] … because that would take a level of bringing his party to a point of understanding that, and this speech doesn’t seem like it was challenging his own party to move out of their safe zone, it was trying to hype up where they currently are,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told reporters after the speech.
‘Something that we need’
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference Tuesday morning prior to the speech that Senate Democrats would be focused this Congress on implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act — a major focus of Biden’s address Tuesday night.
Schumer said that while he couldn’t predict whether Biden in his address would call for overhauling the permitting process, it was crucial for implementation.
“I think it’s something that we need,” he said of permitting reform. “I think it will actually make it a lot easier to implement much of the green energy [provisions] that we have. I think the bill we proposed, according to most of the modelers … shows it would actually decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so I’m for it.”
The White House has previously endorsed efforts to overhaul permitting reform, going so far as to call for its inclusion in must-passed legislation that moved through Congress late last year. They have thus far not backed away from that stance in the new year, even without Biden pointing to it in his speech.
“His administration has already signaled they want us to do permitting reform,” Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) said after the speech. “He realizes it can’t just be an all-Democratic or all-Republican bill, we gotta find some middle ground, and we can.”
Carper suggested that among the areas covered in the speech, permitting reform would not have raised the interest of voters as much as other issues like Social Security or health care access.
“[Permitting] is an esoteric subject, right? As it turns out, it’s very important,” Carper said. “But it’s not the kind of thing you throw out like it’s red meat for the masses.”
Reporters Ellie Borst and Andy Picon contributed.