U.S. Chamber begins push to limit environmental reviews of energy projects

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants Congress to shrink the time allowed for protesting proposed energy projects.

The business trade group plans to lobby for limits on environmental reviews of developments, pushing the idea that expedited approvals will speed job creation and boost the economy.

The strategy follows the release of a report yesterday that attempted to calculate the lost financial benefit of stalled projects (Greenwire, March 10).

"The focus right now is on jobs; the timing is really quite good," said Bill Kovacs, chamber senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. "If we can sell it as having an impact on jobs ... I think we have a pretty good chance."

The move comes as part of a larger chamber campaign advocating energy development. The influence group last month announced it would travel across the country promoting an agenda of less regulation, more domestic energy and research and development of new technologies (Greenwire, Feb. 8).


Now it turns to Capitol Hill. Chamber lobbyists could start with Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who backed a measure that reduced reviews of some projects.

"Certainly, that's one place to start because they're familiar with it," Kovacs said.

Boxer and Barrasso in 2009 joined in supporting language that tightened oversight of some projects that received stimulus bill funding. The language required that projects be "completed on an expeditious basis" and that they use the National Environmental Policy Act's "shortest existing applicable process."

Asked about the chamber's potential inquiry, Boxer's office said the senator "continues to support the concept behind this [stimulus bill] amendment, which allows for fast project delivery without sacrificing the environment or public participation."

Barrasso in 2009 had sought additional limitations beyond the language approved for the stimulus bill. On the Senate floor, he offered an amendment that would have required NEPA reviews to be finished within nine months.

"Senator Barrasso will continue to strongly support efforts to streamline the permitting process in order to help create new jobs across the country," spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said.

Congress could be interested in streamlining approvals of energy projects, said Ken Green, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

"If it's done in a way that really doesn't favor one form of energy project over another, it could have some legs," Green said.

But Democrats may resist limiting appeals of fossil fuel projects, he said.

Time frames debated

Chamber critics and consumer groups urged caution in considering a change to rules governing the development of power plants, wind farms and other energy projects.

"We can have a debate on ways to more efficiently consider and approve energy projects," said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's clean energy program. "But if it's under the guise of a larger theme of attacking regulations in general, then I fear for what [the chamber's] definition of streamlined will look like. It sounds like streamline will be synonymous with gut."

The chamber is setting up a false choice between jobs and environmental protections, said Matthew Garrington, Denver-based deputy director of the Checks and Balances Project, an oversight group on energy policy funded by foundations and individual contributions.

"It sounds like what they really want is for industries to be able to cut corners," Garrington said, adding, "We need to ensure things are done in a way that protects water, protects air resources and creates jobs."

The chamber said it does not want to eliminate environmental oversight or curtail people's rights to file lawsuits and other grievances against developments. But there should be a time limit, Kovacs said.

"You can't have the lawsuits dragging out the process for a decade," Kovacs said.

The chamber wants a fixed time frame for challenges.

"Pick a time. We don't care, 150 days, 180, 270, doesn't matter," Kovacs said. "Pick a time when all the claims against that project have to be filed, and they have to be resolved, up or down."

The chamber could pursue a window like the one Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) just signed into law, Kovacs said. It sets a goal of 150 days for agencies to approve or reject a development permit. Businesses can opt to submit their own preliminary environmental impact statements.

That window is too narrow, Slocum said.

"I am not comfortable with a ticking clock in the consideration of the siting or approval of large energy projects," Slocum said. "Intervenors have a right to have their concerns exhaustively considered."

In addition, Slocum said, there are questions about what role the federal government should have in state decisions on power plants. That could require involvement by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, he said, which does not always allow "effective community engagement and empowerment."

"That has to be a consideration," he said.

While states have jurisdiction over many aspects of energy projects, the federal government also has a big voice, Green said.

"Federal air quality standards give EPA huge power with regard to permitting new energy resource," Green said, and the Interior Department controls federal land.

"The federal government has its levers into the state process," Green said.

Study raises questions

The U.S. Chamber's study on the economic potential of stalled projects, meanwhile, generated questions and criticisms.

The chamber's study examined 351 stalled or killed projects. It did not identify all of them in the report, although the chamber yesterday posted details of each one online.

That list shows that 14 of the projects that were considered delayed have now been completed. Of those, 10 are renewable power, two are natural gas, one is coal and one is transmission.

Many other projects are listed as "in progress" or "in progress with opposition."

The chamber totaled the 351 projects in March 2010. That was a "snapshot" in time, Kovacs said.

"All of the projects that are in the list, none of them had permits on March of 2010," Kovacs said. If the study were redone today, he said, other projects with permitting problems would be added to replace the ones that moved forward.

Slocum, however, said the fact that delayed projects are now finished "underscores that the current process actually functions to a degree."

Chamber Watch, a nonprofit critic of the business trade group, questioned whether the chamber should talk about job creation in light of some of its political positions.

"The U.S. Chamber has, despite its rhetoric, become the chief roadblock to job creation in America," said Chamber Watch spokeswoman Christy Setzer. "If the U.S. Chamber truly cared about creating renewable energy jobs, it could've started by endorsing the clean energy bill proposed in Congress last session, which would have created over 1.7 million of them -- and which the chamber predictably denounced as 'job-killing.'"

Setzer was referring to the House climate bill. The group opposed the House climate bill from Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), calling it "fundamentally flawed."

Asked about this, Kovacs said, "We're here to talk about the study today, not every piece of legislation. We think that it's more important to create jobs and to get green energy online than it is to fight old battles."

He added, "We have a difference of opinion on how you create and how you grow the green energy and efficiency industry."

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