Joe Manchin on Wednesday made public the text of his long-awaited permits bill, the result of a side deal the West Virginia senator made with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as a condition for passing major climate legislation last month. The bill drew a variety of strong and polarized reactions from climate experts, environmental justice advocates and renewable energy promoters, but it remains unclear how it would change the nation’s energy mix. Even less certain is whether the legislation can be passed as a companion to a budget resolution that Congress must pass by the end of the month to avoid a government shutdown.
The bulk of the bill consists of a series of revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a sweeping 1970 law that requires federal agencies to review the environmental impacts of nearly every decision they make. The legislation would set a two-year cap on NEPA reviews of major infrastructure projects and a one-year cap on reviews of minor projects, though it’s unclear what would happen if the agencies exceed those deadlines, and the project The bill does not contain any funding to help agencies comply with the new mandates. The bill also reduces the statute of limitations for court challenges against agency authorization decisions from six years to about five months.
In theory, the reforms in the bill will make it easier to build all kinds of energy projects, from mines to pipelines, gas terminals and solar farms. In practice, it is not clear what effect the bill will have on construction schedules, or how it will benefit fossil fuel projects compared to renewables.
Many liberal and libertarian thinkers have criticized NEPA and voiced support for the bill, saying it would accelerate clean energy. The free-market R Street Institute, for example, found that 40 percent of active NEPA reviews at the Department of Energy are for clean energy projects, compared to 15 percent for fossil fuels. Liberal columnist Ezra Klein, writing for the New York Timeshe said the basic environmental law is one of many “controls on development that have done a lot of good over the years, but are now doing a lot of harm.”
However, some research has suggested that The delays in revising NEPA are not primarily due to limitations in the law itself. but due to the shortage of personnel in the administrative agencies responsible for conducting reviews. Southern Methodist University law professor James Coleman has additionally written that reforming NEPA would not help renewables much, as the main hurdle for such projects is often getting approval. at the state and local levelwhere they often run into fierce opposition.
Many of those who oppose the bill also argue that the bill places an additional burden on communities vulnerable to infrastructure pollution damage by weakening the review process for new projects and closing litigation avenues. Representatives from Greenpeace, the Sunrise Movement, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and dozens of other environmental groups, all spoke out against the bill after organizing a rally outside the US Capitol earlier this month to oppose Manchin’s deal with Schumer.
“By making it more difficult for communities to participate in the permitting process, the fossil fuel industry and others will be able to rush permits without adequate time to review and consider environmental impacts, which will only continue the legacy of pollution that has turned these communities into sacrifice zones,” Peggy Shepard, co-founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a Harlem-based advocacy organization, said in a statement.
The reception inside the Capitol was no friendlier. Schumer and Manchin plan to attach the bill to a the so-called continuing resolution, a measure that temporarily funds government operations, forcing senators to vote to keep the government open rather than independently approve or deny the permit deal. Several progressive senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, said they would not support a funding resolution with the permit language, with Warren saying that “should be debated and voted on separately.” Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called it “disastrous side deal”, and a group of several dozen progressives in the House of Representatives have also go against the deal. Many Senate Republicans, burned by Manchin’s support for the Inflation Reduction Act, have announced his opposition also.
A continuing resolution needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, so Manchin would need the support of at least 10 Republicans, even if the entire Democratic caucus supported the bill. Given the number of early defections on both sides, it seems unlikely the bill will find many supporters. What is less clear is whether all the senators who have announced their opposition would be willing to sink a subprime funding bill because of their opposition to allowing reform. If the continuing resolution is not passed by September 30, the The federal government will shut down, marking the first government shutdown of the Biden administration.
The other provisions of the bill are mixed when it comes to climate. The law would require the Department of Energy to identify a list of 25 “critical energy projects” that will receive expedited consideration by federal agencies. In keeping with Manchin’s all-of-the-above energy philosophy, the list must contain at least five fossil fuel projects, four mining projects, five renewable energy projects and one carbon capture project. Only five of the 25 slots are left to the discretion of the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, a section on electrical transmission received praise from supporters of renewable energy. The bill gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission expanded authority to promote the construction of new power transmission lines between regions of the country, and also allows the commission allocate the costs of the new lines electricity users who will benefit from them. That’s a complicated way of saying that the commission can incentivize utilities to build new lines by making sure it makes financial sense for them to do so. a recent princeton analysis found that the United States will have to double the rate at which it installs transmission lines to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Senator Manchin’s bill includes provisions that will help streamline the transmission approval process, enhancing our ability to meet our nation’s decarbonization goals by better connecting our key renewable resources to our largest population centers.” said Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, a trade group that represents renewable energy companies.
Perhaps the most controversial provision, however, is the one that clears the way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile pipeline that would transport natural gas from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The pipeline has been a key priority for Manchin and has faced sustained opposition from various community groups citing environmental, public health and safety concerns. Several lawsuits challenging the pipeline permits are pending in state and federal courts, and earlier this year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit invalidated the permits issued by the pipeline. US Forest Service, Bureau of Land ManagementY Fish and Wildlife Service.
Manchin’s bill directs these agencies to reissue opinions, permits, leases, and other authorizations required to operate the pipeline and exempts those federal actions from judicial review. That means community groups will no longer be able to challenge pipeline permits in court. Jared Margolis, an attorney with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, said it’s unclear what passage of the bill might mean for pending lawsuits, but it could lead to lawsuits being deemed “moot” and dismissed.
Since Congress passed the nation’s environmental laws, it can dictate where they apply, Margolis said. Bill Speeds Up Controversial Keystone XL Pipeline took a similar approach many years ago. If Manchin’s bill passes, Margolis said, it would set a dangerous precedent. “The fact that Congress is engaging in skirmishes at the bill level is startling and frightening,” he said. “If the new thing is going to get support from Congress, then it’s about political support and public opinion rather than fundamental environmental laws.”
The provision of gas pipelines caused at least one more desertion on the Democratic side of the aisle. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, whose state would be the pipeline’s final destination, told reporters that the inclusion of the language made the bill “completely unacceptable.”
“I will do everything I can to oppose it,” he said.