The House Democrat trying to move his party on NEPA reform

By Emma Dumain, Kelsey Brugger | 02/17/2023 06:27 AM EST

California Rep. Scott Peters is promoting National Environmental Policy Act changes to spur action against climate change.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.). Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Despite a Republican House majority, Democratic Rep. Scott Peters has entered the 118th Congress emboldened.

As members of both parties and chambers restart negotiations on legislation to speed up the permitting process for energy projects, the California lawmaker wants to take on the role of bipartisan dealmaker, leveraging the relationships he has formed across the aisle with the credibility he has earned as an environmental advocate.

But Peters’ steadfast belief that solving the climate crisis will require a reexamination of long-standing environmental regulations — specifically those enshrined by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 — puts him at odds with his more natural set of allies who consider NEPA sacrosanct.


“The boogeyman we always heard about is, ‘Oh you’re trying to change NEPA.’ And yeah, I’m trying to change NEPA,” Peters said in an interview. “If it keeps us from saving the planet? Yeah.”

He is far from the only Democrat in Congress who supports fast-tracked permitting to quickly build out solar and wind energy, insisting it’s key to achieving climate goals.

Many Democrats — including party leaders and President Joe Biden — are also rallying behind the argument that climate investments in the Inflation Reduction Act won’t be able to get underway without streamlining some regulations to get projects off the ground more quickly. And some worry doing nothing could provoke political attacks ahead of 2024.

The reason Peters could become all but radioactive, however, is because he is saying the quiet part out loud: Reopening NEPA will almost certainly be necessary for passing permitting reform legislation.

Progressive Democrats and green advocates joined together last year to help thwart efforts that would have made changes to the long-standing environment law and demonized all those who did not side with them.

Peters isn’t standing down. He is fast to rattle off facts and figures, the number of years it took to build the last tranche of miles of transmission line, and the urgency with which the United States must complete the next.

“If you’re a climate advocate, you really gotta start with how you build stuff faster,” Peters said. “And if you accept the challenge of climate change, and you accept how we have to follow the science, it is inevitable that you will accept the fact that we have to change these processes.”

Peters sees his role as twofold: He has to “drive the facts” to environmental advocacy groups and Democratic colleagues who think NEPA is “the Bible,” and he has to “talk to Republicans” who, in the House, will be leading negotiations on permitting reform.

“The thing that I recognize from being a trial lawyer and being in local government is that every time there’s a conflict, you have to manage, and that change makes people nervous, and sometimes they’ll grumble,” Peters said. “And the amount of change we have to make to deal with climate is radical. I don’t think people appreciate it.”

‘Because of NEPA’

Peters is a moderate member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition who boasts of his interest in finding compromise rather than waging partisan warfare. But he also uses a climate hawk’s vocabulary.

An environmental attorney for 15 years before entering politics, Peters views the challenge of stopping a dangerously warming planet as “akin to winning a world war,” and the legislative undertaking is even more ambitious and consequential than congressional Democrats’ transformation of the American health care system in 2010.

He has scored victories in some of the most significant climate legislative packages in recent years, and he embraces progressive environmental legislative priorities, such as instituting a border carbon adjustment and aggressively reigning in methane emissions.

Peters considers it “profound” that House Republicans — long a party full of climate science denialists — have found upward of 80 members willing to acknowledge the science of climate change as part of the Conservative Climate Caucus, led by Rep. John Curtis of Utah.

But Peters derided the GOP as “too oily and gassy for me,” and volunteered that if it were up to him, he would “shut down every coal plant.”

Scott Peters
Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) on the House floor. | House Television/Associated Press

It’s his position on reopening NEPA to accelerate grid electrification — billions of dollars for which was included in the Inflation Reduction Act — and for transmission deployment that makes him something of an outlier in his party.

Among environmentalists and many Democrats, NEPA stands as the country’s bedrock environmental law. It has greatly diminished environmental disasters, like the recent toxic train derailment in Ohio that might otherwise be much more common, said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We take for granted all of the catastrophes we avoid all the time because of NEPA,” Hartl said.

NEPA requires government planners to consider climate change and other environmental harms when scrutinizing the effects of major pipelines, bridges, highways and other projects.

Proponents stress the law is the key tool that allows ordinary Americans to fight polluting projects in their neighborhoods, especially low-income regions and communities of color, which have long been overrun by industry. They contend local input on the front end cuts way down on litigation in the long run.

Hartl noted that federal agencies have improved their behavior across the board because NEPA has been baked into how they operate. Before the law was enacted in 1970, he said, the Ohio River would routinely catch on fire. Neighborhoods with hundreds of homes were bulldozed (Greenwire, March 12, 2020).

But Republicans have long wanted to redo NEPA as part of a broader “permitting reform” push that aims to speed up construction of major infrastructure, both fossil fuel and renewable energy.

Peters agrees it would make sense for hastening renewable energy projects, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to convince enough Democrats of this perspective.

Debate has already begun inside the House Natural Resources Committee, where Republicans will be hammering out legislation that could be released as early as this month.

‘We need radical change’

Peters is close with the new House Natural Resources chair, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), but the Californian is not a member of the panel, which will have wide jurisdiction over permitting overhaul legislation.

Rather, the committee is stacked with progressives who are largely against the effort.

Last year, ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) led 76 Democrats against permitting reform proposals. Ten of the co-signers currently sit on the Natural Resources Committee, of which there are 20 Democrats total — and four of them are new members this Congress.

More recently, Grijalva said he’s open to working with Republicans to find compromise, but he acknowledges he won’t budge on some provisions, including NEPA (E&E Daily, Feb. 2).

Westerman has, in turn, insisted he wants to work with Democrats to produce a permitting bill that can pass the Democratic-controlled Senate and get signed by Biden. He has already convened multiple hearings on the subject last week, where some glimmers of potential compromise emerged.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) — who noted her late husband, longtime Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell, played a key role crafting the original legislation enacted in 1970 — said she was open to changes. Her comments raised some eyebrows in environmental circles.

Debbie Dingell raising a finger to speak during a meeting.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) has spoken in favor of changes to the National Environmental Policy Act. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

In an interview after the hearing, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), now the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, also suggested there could be room for “commonsense proposals — it’s never going to be just a blanket.”

But the committee’s first field hearing did not bode well for optimists. Westerman and three Republicans went to the Permian Basin to discuss the oil industry’s contribution to state coffers.

Democrats rejected their invitation to join, with a committee aide maligning the hearing as “yet another venue for a recitation of fossil fuel industry talking points and rhetoric, despite Big Oil’s record-breaking profits last year.”

Peters shrugged off any suggestion that he should be worried Natural Resources Democrats were too dug in against permitting reform efforts to be productive negotiators, Peters laughed.

“Well, first of all, it will be more than one committee,” he said.

The Energy and Commerce Committee, one which Peters sits, along with the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, will also have some purview.

But, Peters continued, “I don’t think you’re going to get the Natural Resources Committee to come out with a radical redo of NEPA … we need radical change.”

‘A lot of pats on the back’

Republicans who want to work with Democrats say they understand NEPA is, as Peters put it, a “boogeyman” that could scare off the left from coming to the table.

Westerman called NEPA a “very well-meaning law” that has “essentially been weaponized.”

He explained, “We’re not saying, ‘Change the results you get from NEPA.’ Just make NEPA work, and do it in a timely manner.”

Curtis, who works with Peters on climate issues, agreed that Republicans need to win over colleagues across the aisle.

“There’s an automatic suspicion that [Republicans] want to undo NEPA,” Curtis said, “and I think we have to be very clear with [Democrats] that what we want to do with NEPA is not take away the environmental protections; what we want is quicker answers and more certainty once those answers are given.”

Peters said the conversation around reopening NEPA “has to be driven on our side,” not the GOP’s, but he has struggled to do that, too.

Last year, he questioned a “knee-jerk” response from the environmental community on legislation that sought to protect the giant sequoia trees, which have come under existential threat amid worsening wildfires.

The “Save Our Sequoias Act,” which Peters introduced with Westerman and now-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), proposed to give the federal government authority to thin forests and remove dead or dying trees in or around sequoia groves before the completion of an environmental review.

Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.).
Then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is flanked by Reps. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.) during a press conference on sequoia legislation during the last Congress. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

In response, more than 80 environmental advocacy groups opposed the bill, writing in a joint letter to members of Congress that it was a “misguided step in the wrong direction that would remove science and community input from decision-making that would severely undercut bedrock environmental laws.”

The League of Conservation Voters, which was the first organization listed as a signer of the massive letter against the “Save Our Sequoias Act,” is also against Congress passing permitting legislation that meddles with environmental laws.

“Any kind of kind of reopening of NEPA or quote-unquote ‘permitting reform’ is going to undermine our bedrock environmental laws and potentially cause damage to more communities,” said Matthew Davis, LCV’s senior director of government affairs.

Davis noted that giving NEPA more money for staffing and resources was an obvious way to speed up environmental review processes. He also mentioned several actions Biden could take administratively.

Peters wouldn’t specify which groups he’s negotiating with, but said he was reaching out to advocates on permitting to “come up with something that the environmental community is enthusiastic about.”

While he has the advantage of working with GOP allies if Democrats don’t come on board, Peters isn’t giving up on his party and its green allies just yet.

“There’s going to need to be a lot of pats on the back [and] chamomile tea,” Peters said with a laugh.

But he clarified he wasn’t going to play the role of the comforter: “I’m going to be more of the ‘breaking the glasses’ person,” he said.