One way to do this is to streamline the regulatory process, and Democrats in Congress have the opportunity to do so. When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a deal with Senator Joe Manchin to pass the inflation reduction bill, it included a promise to consider environmental review reform and authority clearance legislation. .
President Biden’s commitment to take cranes into the sky and shovels into the ground to transform our economy towards carbon neutrality hangs in the balance.
Democrats and progressives should embrace that reform rather than veto it, as many democratic climate hawks threaten to do. Massive investments in green energy in the law on reducing inflation will go nowhere – and will not help us in the fight against climate change – without being accompanied by a reform to allow our country to build again and faster.
A leaked outline of Manchin’s proposal includes defining maximum timelines for the environmental review process for energy projects. Other components would make it more difficult for states to block projects that cross their waters, which is one way state authorities block projects of national significance using state laws.
Although it includes provisions for pet projects, the crux of the Manchin-Schumer side deal targets a weak feature of our political system: from the Senate to filibuster, gerrymandering at all federal and state levels, commissions, NIMBY (“not in my courtyard “) referendums, boards of directors and disputes of interest groups: our regulatory system has become a” vetocracy “that hinders progress. Bureaucracy in the authorization functions has become another veto point, as regulatory regimes inevitably get caught by special interests.
The United States is one of the slowest countries to build large projects and infrastructure, and the most expensive. In turn, the costs of our infrastructure and major projects are astronomical compared to the rest of the world. For example, we hold the title for the most expensive subway project in the world: the New York City Second Avenue subway expansion, which cost $ 2.2 billion per kilometer and was completed 90 years after conception. In contrast, Paris is building a brand new 47-mile-long subway line for a total of $ 11 billion. If New York were to build a new 47-mile-long subway, it would likely cost well over $ 100 billion, roughly the entire GDP of the country of Ecuador.
The main driver of this is speed, or lack thereof, and it starts with the longest planning, authorization and approval process in the world. One of the main reasons is that our environmental regulatory regime is focused on process rather than substantive results. No law in the book exemplifies this more than the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (known as NEPA).
NEPA requires that all construction projects under federal jurisdiction conduct an environmental impact statement on a given project. In the beginning, these statements were usually around 10 pages long.
Today what started out as a good idea has turned into a demon. The Department of Energy reported that the average time to complete an environmental impact statement in 2015 was 4.1 years and the average cost was $ 4.2 million. They are regularly thousands of pages and take years to complete and, more often than not, are used to kill projects with a slow death or make them exorbitant.
NEPA recently claimed responsibility for a number of clean energy projects. For example, New York’s congestion charging was delayed by NEPA and pushed to 2023 despite being surpassed in 2019 due to the consideration of numerous “alternative routes” to avoid litigation. San Francisco’s bike paths were delayed by a report that reached 1,353 pages, 2.5 years, and over $ 1 million in costs due to the NEPA overhaul.
NEPA reviews often kill wind projects as well: in one, wind farms off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, which would produce enough to power some 720,000 homes with clean energy, have been delayed for years; another Cape Cod wind farm was canceled after 16 years of NEPA delays and hundreds of millions spent on sunk costs; and it took 11 years of NEPA delays before a major wind project in Wyoming was finally approved.
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Mass transit authorities have great difficulty getting projects approved in a timely manner. It’s partly why New York’s Second Avenue subway was delayed; the next three phases will each require a separate review. California’s high-speed rail system has been delayed for nearly a decade due to lengthy procedural delays. The federal government can’t even put solar panels on its roofs without initiating a NEPA review.
Forest fire prevention also suffers: Congress recently tried to pass a specific NEPA exclusion in the Save Our Sequoias Act because Forest Service’s forest fire prevention projects are delayed an average of 3.5 to 7.2 years .
Federal agencies are risk averse and often err on the side of a conservative review rather than risk a federal court dismissing it as deficient. The nature of NEPA’s civil lawsuit provision allows anyone to challenge an agency’s procedure, which has had the effect of allowing special interest groups to step in and often having projects suppressed due to delays. The costs of large infrastructure and energy projects are concentrated but the benefits are widespread, so NEPA too often allows small groups to destroy good public projects that would benefit many, many people.
Properly reforming NEPA is a generational issue. Right now we have process-based environmental protections with conflicting results. The reform reimagines a substance-based environmental protection regime that takes the entire planet into account. NEPA was passed in the 1970s, when localized environmental damage such as toxic waste was the primary concern. Our challenges today are global, but how NEPA is commonly interpreted and applied can foster the status quo and disadvantage developing land for renewable energy projects. A major recent quantitative analysis from NEPA by Trevor Salter of the University of California, Davis, argues that the current law advances land conservation interests too far at the expense of developing renewable energy projects.
Opponents of bureaucracy reform will point out that greater community contribution is key, which was the original purpose of NEPA. But today, the reality is that NEPA has become a regulatory capture tool. True, it allows any citizen to file a lawsuit to stop a project, but a recent study found that only 3 percent of NEPA contenders were Native American tribes or local residents. Instead, the vast majority of litigants were special interest groups, sometimes from convenience organizations funded by fossil fuel interests.
The irony is that NEPA actually hinders renewable energy far more than fossil fuels and the repaving of highways. Fossil fuel development is entirely exempt from many NEPA reviews, and older incumbents have had decades to work the process in their favor: 42% of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) active NEPA projects are energy-related clean, transmission or conservation, while only 15% are related to fossil fuels. In particular, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created a loophole for oil and gas exploration on federal land, exempting many oil and gas projects in the western United States from the obligation to comply with the NEPA. Incredibly, carbon-free geothermal projects don’t get the same treatment, they have to file NEPA reports essentially condemning them against their dirtier competitors.
The Institute for Progress has outlined a list of policy suggestions to prevent NEPA from being used to harm the environment, including giving clean energy the same regulatory treatment that fossil fuels already receive, setting limits on judicial scrutiny resulting from the NEPA, establishing “energy security corridors” to incentivize state and local governments to streamline their licensing and review processes.
Permission reviews should have a 16-month window with stricter guidelines for reviewing disputes because certainty, whether a project is approved or not, helps redistribute capital quickly for productive uses but kills limbo. Finally, dark money interest groups, often funded by competitors of a clean energy project, should not have the strength to challenge a public benefit project.
In the United States, a long history of perceived sacrifice to achieve environmental goals has led to the belief that economic growth and the environment are locked in a zero-sum game, that growth suffers from decarbonisation. To build support for a lasting environmental movement, we need to decouple environmentalism from a perceived decline in living standards. Accelerating the road to an environmental agenda that is rapidly focused on creating an abundance of clean energy accomplishes just that.
Reforming the licensing process to make it easier to fight global warming is a moral obligation, even if it means letting a fossil fuel project go ahead like the one Mr. Manchin wants in West Virginia.
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