After passing key climate legislation this summer, Congress is turning to approving reforms — the “side deal” that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck with Senator Joe Manchin. Liberals in Congress have refused, fearing the deal will do more harm than good to the environment. But rather than resisting reform, liberals should recognize that a solution is imperative, if only to prove that a Democratic House, Senate, and White House can handle our greatest threats.
To secure Manchin’s vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, Schumer promised to adopt a permit reform package to streamline construction of new energy projects. It would modernize laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which places onerous procedural requirements on development projects to assess environmental impacts.
Manchin’s just-released legislation empowers the President to designate energy projects for expedited energy approvals; limits environmental assessments of new projects to two years; limits the time litigants have to file lawsuits against new projects; centralizes licensing for interstate transmission lines; and is completing its coveted natural gas pipeline in its home state of West Virginia.
This deal angers progressives. Rep. Jared Huffman called it a “shabby backroom deal.” More than 70 House Democrats sent a letter to the leadership demanding that “attempts to create or undermine a short circuit.” [NEPA] in the name of “reform” must be rejected, “as well as provisions that ‘significantly and disproportionately affect’ low-income, indigenous and color communities.” Some environmental groups refuse to approve reform, seeing it as a Trojan horse for fossil fuels.
Undoubtedly, approving reform could be a double-edged sword: regulatory efforts to speed up energy production and transmission could benefit both clean energy and fossil fuels. But the urgency of climate change requires progressives to embrace some permitting reforms. According to Princeton University’s REPEAT project, the Inflation Reduction Act has the potential to secure two-thirds of the emissions reductions the United States needs to meet our climate goals. But the word potential is the key. The same group warns that the IRA’s $370 billion in climate spending could be well under its weight if we don’t get our permitting processes in order. It found that 80 percent of the IRA’s potential emissions reductions will be lost if we can’t ramp up power transmission faster. That’s because much of the law’s impact depends on harvesting and distributing abundant clean energy from new infrastructure that needs to be approved: wind farms, solar arrays and other renewable energy sources, and transmission lines. Unless we drastically streamline permitting processes, building clean energy infrastructure could take too long to meet our climate goals.
Preventing the IRA from fulfilling its potential would be a self-inflicted wound for clean energy advocates and a well-known failure for progressives. President Joe Biden’s short-lived child benefit under the American Rescue Plan, while impressive at reducing child poverty, fell short of 18 percent of eligible children. Obamacare’s health insurance markets, originally intended to mark the beginning of the end of employment-based insurance, are expected to cover 25 million people; Instead, they’ve settled at just under 15 million, an important hold but not what it could have been.
This implementation loss leaves a delta between what a policy is should achieve and what it actually reached. This problem particularly plagues large infrastructure projects, from subway lines to wind and solar parks, which struggle with frequent cost overruns, construction delays and lengthy environmental assessments. A high-speed rail that was to be President Barack Obama’s signature transportation project is still nowhere to be found. Our failure to implement these laws has an increasing impact on progressing achievements.
Progressives once knew how to build. Throughout the Democratic Party, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs are held up as paragons of liberal ambition and effectiveness. But it’s impossible to imagine that FDR’s most famous infrastructure projects are progressing at anywhere near the same pace in today’s permitting environment. in the Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal, historian William Leuchtenburg recounts that FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority – “the world’s largest earth dam” – brought electricity to a region where in 1932 “only one in a hundred farms in Mississippi had electricity.” As TVA Director David Lilienthal put it, “We are working towards no less than the electrification of America.”
Roosevelt’s rural electrification program turned on the light in rural America. In 1935, 90 percent of American farms were without electricity. By 1955, because of the Rural Electrification Administration, 90 percent of farms were connected to electricity.
Today we need to generate clean energy and distribute it over new transmission lines. But it’s taking a decade or more to build a single line, in part because of permitting delays. But the models that predicted the IRA’s impact on emissions assumed lines would multiply in just seven years. As stated in a report by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, building a new transmission under current permitting conditions requires “an extensive site and permitting process that can span over a decade and can set the goal of a zero-carbon transmission on the power grid by.” Out of reach by 2035.” Approving reform would help accelerate construction of the new intergovernmental pipelines we need to decarbonize.
To do big liberal things — to take “FDR-big” steps on climate change — will require rethinking regulatory barriers. Of course, we shouldn’t go all the way back to the 1930s; FDR’s building frenzy was accelerated by a lack of environmental legislation and lax worker protections. But we should honestly reconsider where we overcorrected with laws like NEPA, which now ensnares bike lanes and offshore wind farms in lengthy environmental assessments.
There will be trade-offs between quick action and a measured approach, between broad national benefits and potential harm to individual population groups. For example, progressives in Congress fear that approving reforms will hurt historically disadvantaged communities by exposing them to new fossil fuel development. But even these communities, long plagued by air pollution and environmental degradation, would benefit greatly from the acceleration of a clean energy economy. Princeton’s REPEAT project estimates the IRA has the potential to save 35,000 lives from premature death over the next decade by reducing air pollution from power plants, cars, trucks and buses. These health benefits risk eroding if we stick to the status quo that allows sitting.
If liberals fail to allow sclerosis, voters will elect those who do (or at least pretend to do so). Here is libertarian columnist Virginia Postrel describing then-lead candidate Donald Trump in March 2016:
“Who can build better than Trump? I build; it’s what I do,” he said, defending the practicality of his proposed border wall. For his supporters, the appeal lies not only in the possibility of the wall being built, but in the belief that their candidate is a doer, someone whose skills transcend the mundane and inadequate skills of the political class currently in power.
Voters didn’t vote for Trump out of disgust at the US approval process. But years of projects that fell short of their promises led to cynicism and doubts that a liberal government could be made to work.
Biden understands that. He recently tweeted, “When Americans see big projects popping up in their hometowns — cranes reaching up, shovels in the ground — I want them to feel like I’m feeling: proud of what we can accomplish, if we do it together.” Recent research confirms Biden’s sensitivity, noting that building wind turbines “brought great electoral benefits for (pro-renewable) Democratic candidates.” Most voters like tangible ecological advances in their communities that enable a virtuous cycle of politics. Faster deployment of clean energy infrastructure benefits climate-friendly legislators.
Instead of trying to kill reform approval, liberals should put their stamp on it. Boycotting negotiations guarantees that those who are ambivalent about or opposed to a green transition will shape its terms. Liberals have the numbers in Congress to ensure that reform approvals disproportionately speed up clean energy projects.
One approach that might work for liberals is to simply exempt green energy projects from environmental testing. There is little point in letting green laws delay green projects. But that may not square with Manchin and his preference for an “all of the above” (i.e., renewable and fossil fuels alike) energy portfolio. The coal state senator could be more open to proposals from the Institute for Progress, a bipartisan think tank that would put clean energy projects on the same regulatory footing as fossil fuel projects (which get numerous exemptions from the Environmental Assessment Act). Others have suggested creating specialized “NEPA courts” in which technical experts rule environmental assessment cases faster and more consistently than regular federal courts.
The reform should also remove state and local permitting obstacles that delay or destroy wind and solar farms that face neighborhood opposition. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which supported the construction of cell phone towers against frequent local opposition, can be a good model.
And while Manchin-led permit reform may be a double-edged sword “all of the above,” the fossil-fuel advantage could prove boring. Renewable energy costs have fallen sharply, and the emerging direction of major industries and the IRA’s clean energy stimulus point to a green future. Auto ads are now all about electric vehicles, and clean energy has the economic wind in its sails.
Approving reforms can help fuel American momentum through liberal governance. Nearly a century after the New Deal, we must once again “work toward no less a goal than the electrification of America”—that clean Electrification of America. That’s what this moment is calling for – to keep the rising seas and the illiberals at bay.