Progressives gird for battle as permitting talks escalate

By Emma Dumain | 05/19/2023 06:18 AM EDT

The Democratic Party’s left wing has ramped up its rhetoric against a potential debt limit deal that could change environmental reviews of energy projects.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) during a press conference on the debt ceiling at the Capitol.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) speaks during a press conference on the debt ceiling at the Capitol on Thursday. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Progressive Democrats and climate hawks are firing warning shots at party leaders and President Joe Biden not to compromise with Republicans on permitting reform as a way to raise the debt ceiling.

In a series of letters, floor speeches and ad campaigns, many on the party’s left wing says they will not accept a debt limit deal that includes any undermining of bedrock environmental laws.

“If Republicans insist on selling out working Americans or trying to flood America with fossil fuels, then the President must use his constitutional authority to protect America and end this hostage taking,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), tweeted Thursday.


The push has echoes from just a few months ago, when left-leaning lawmakers said they were prepared to shut down the government or delay funding for defense programs rather than vote on a proposal to overhaul the nation’s energy project permitting laws. Ultimately, they won out, as the permitting effort fizzled.

The stakes this time, however, are far higher. Democrats are not threatening a mere lapse in federal government spending but a default on the nation’s borrowing authority — an event economists say would be cataclysmic.

In debt limit talks between the White House and House Republicans, it’s not clear what negotiators are eyeing in terms of changes to the permitting process. The White House has confirmed the administration has put it on the table for discussions to avert a default as early as June 1.

“We’ve been clear we support permitting reform, with Senior Advisor John Podesta outlining our priorities last week,” Michael Kikukawa, assistant press secretary, told E&E News in a statement earlier this week.

“We have seen bipartisan support for permitting reform and certainly hope there is bipartisan progress. But we’re not going to detail what negotiators are discussing.”

Podesta, a White House climate adviser, is touting an 11-point set of principles the administration would endorse in any permitting package, which includes accelerating grid updates, overhauling outdated mining laws and siting hydrogen and carbon dioxide infrastructure.

Democrats would probably be satisfied with those contours, as they would deal with transmission deployment and benefit clean energy projects rather than oil and gas endeavors.

But Republicans have been pushing for changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to speed up permitting for fossil fuel projects — a proposition Democrats largely reject.

And the Republican lawmaker negotiating the terms of a debt ceiling agreement on behalf of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), the author of the “BUILDER Act,” the House GOP’s opening bid on permitting reform that would streamline environmental reviews with two-year deadlines and limit time for legal challenges to approved permits.

The “BUILDER Act” was contained in H.R. 1, the “Lower Energy Costs Act,” which was in turn included in House Republican-passed debt limit bill, H.R. 2811, the “Limit, Save, Grow Act.”

“Under the guise of ‘permitting reform,’ these extreme, ideological attacks on NEPA would eliminate requirements to consider climate change and pollution impacts, cut public input opportunities, and limit judicial review,” more than 60 House Democrats wrote in a letter addressed to Biden and New York Democrats Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, and Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader.

Laying a marker

The letter, according to a Democratic aide, will be formally transmitted to the three-party leaders in the coming days with the signatures from six committee ranking members.

Among them will be House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who is spearheading the opposition now as he did last year, when Biden and Schumer were rallying their members to support a permitting proposal championed by Sen. Joe Manchin in exchange for the West Virginia Democrat’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act.

Manchin’s bill could also be considered in debt limit negotiations, as it would boost transmission deployment as well as oil and gas projects.

It would, similar to the “BUILDER Act,” set a two-year shot clock on agencies to complete environmental reviews and require legal challenges to be filed within 150 days of a permit’s issuance.

The Democrats, in their letter, call for four principles to be retained in any debt ceiling discussion that includes permitting:

  • “The primary focus on permitting must be properly implementing existing laws — not gutting or changing our core environmental laws and protections;”
  • “federal permitting and environmental review offices must be fully funded and staffed;”
  • “administrative and legislative action to facilitate the rapid buildout of new electricity transmission infrastructure is needed;”
  • “efforts to hold must-pass legislation hostage with extreme proposals must be rejected.”

The Democrats further wrote: “We remain deeply concerned that sacrificing any of these four principles will result in serious and detrimental harm to millions of Americans — especially those living in low-income communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color overburdened already by decades of irresponsible industry development.”

Senate Dem anxieties

House Democrats are girding for battle as the League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power prepare to spend an additional $350,000 on a seven-figure ad campaign in states and districts where congressional Republicans are enjoying clean energy manufacturing booms as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act — despite voting to repeal the law’s clean energy tax credits through the “Limit, Save, Grow Act.”

In the Senate, some Democrats are channeling their anxiety over a permitting deal that cedes too much to the fossil fuel industry by mobilizing around an effort to compel Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling.

“We also cannot allow these budget negotiations to undermine the historic clean energy and environmental justice investments made by Congress and your administration by allowing fossil fuel companies to unleash a flood of dirty energy projects that will worsen the climate crisis and disproportionately impact frontline communities,” 11 senators wrote to Biden on Thursday. “We must continue the transition from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy.”

The letter was led by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, and signed by senators including Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and another avowed climate hawk, Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who took to the Senate floor on Thursday to air his concerns about where talks might be headed.

Markey, in an interview as a part of POLITICO’s energy summit later in the day, accused Republicans of “trying to extract a new set of permitting regulations that make it possible for the oil and gas industry to just detonate a carbon bomb over the United States while simultaneously not dealing with the transmission permitting issue.

“I suspect that’s going on,” he said. “I’m not in the room, but I don’t think you have to be a political savant to surmise that this will be the topic of Republican demands.”

In a statement overnight, the White House said the president had received a briefing on the talks while traveling abroad. Biden is due back in Washington this weekend.

“The President directed his team to continue pressing forward for a bipartisan agreement and made clear the need to protect essential programs for hardworking Americans and the economic progress of the past two years as negotiations head into advanced stages,” the statement said.