White House releases climate guidance for permitting

By Kelsey Brugger | 01/06/2023 01:54 PM EST

Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory.

Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

The White House issued a new policy directive Friday that aims to spur clean energy development and fulfill President Joe Biden’s pledge to strengthen the green economy.

The greenhouse gas guidance directs federal planners to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions “to the greatest extent possible” when surveying the impacts of projects like highways, pipelines, transmissions, bridges and renewable energy ventures. The documents builds on an Obama-era edict that former President Donald Trump scrapped.

“These updated guidelines will provide greater certainty and predictability for green infrastructure projects, help grow our clean energy economy, and help fulfill President Biden’s climate and infrastructure goals,” Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said in a statement.

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The years-in-the-making guidance does not amount to a rulemaking and, to the chagrin of environmentalists, would be easy for a future president to quickly repeal.

Still, CEQ said the policy guidance complements ongoing rulemakings and would generally make clean energy project reviews clearer and more focused.

More specifically, the document directs federal agencies to use a “rule of reason” to make the depth of analysis proportional to a project’s impacts. In other words, clean projects that cut emissions can have less-detailed climate reviews.

“It is a no-brainer,” said Sam Ricketts, a senior adviser for Evergreen Action. “It is a significant improvement on previous versions.”

It comes as the Biden administration aims to steer hundreds of billions of dollars from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and the 2022 climate law to build out clean energy projects.

Developers have complained that cumbersome environmental reviews, mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act, slow down big-ticket projects, including those for oil and gas as well as offshore wind and solar. Environmentalists generally counter that many projects have been delayed by financing issues and local concerns.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the guidance strengthens agency consideration of greenhouse gas emissions, but said overall, he finds the nonbinding policy “meh.”

“Republicans are going to decry this, and Democrats are going to say this is the most amazing document they’ve ever read,” Hartl said. “It’s neither.”

Chad Whiteman, vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern about more red tape for smaller projects — like renovations — that have been exempt from lengthened environmental reviews.

Asked whether the guidance would boost clean energy, he said: “I think there should be fair treatment across all project types.”

He said, “As much as offshore wind or solar may help the administration’s goals, it, too, in the end will have to meet the same requirements in the courts.”

The granular issue of permitting infrastructure projects erupted into a high-profile political fight on Capitol Hill late last year when Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) proposed a controversial permitting plan in exchange for his support for the Inflation Reduction Act. The plan failed, but the issue is expected to return in full force this Congress.

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