Lawmakers, industries push for permitting reform in months ahead

April 19, 2023
Two US senators and a host of industry allies are pushing for congressional action this spring and summer on reform of federal permitting, a costly delay-producing challenge for oil and gas companies and other infrastructure developers.

Two US senators and a host of industry allies are pushing for congressional action this spring and summer on reform of federal permitting, a costly delay-producing challenge for oil and gas companies and other infrastructure developers.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told a forum at the US Chamber of Commerce that Senate committees would be holding hearings starting this month and running through May with the hope of seeing a bipartisan compromise permitting bill take shape before the congressional August recess and the likely September crunch on annual appropriations legislation.

Reform will be less likely in 2024 because of lawmakers turning their attention to elections, Manchin said, emphasizing the need to get it done this year. “This is a defining moment,” he said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) similarly made a pitch for energy permitting reform and stressed that it would need to go through the jurisdictional committees to build adequate support, rather than relying on a small “gang” lawmakers. She may have been alluding to what happened in 2022, when Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and White House representatives hammered out their own compromise only to see it opposed by many Republicans and Democrats alike.

In the next 2 years, in a very divided Congress, it will be difficult to get much done, Capito said, adding, “This is the thing we can do.”

Many allies

Manchin and Capito have a strong shared interest through the hopes of West Virginia to see more pipelines carrying Appalachian natural gas out of their state, in particular the long-stalled Mountain Valley Pipeline (OGJ Online, Apr. 4, 2023). They have allies in both parties and many industries and states with a variety of motivations.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) spoke to the Chamber of Commerce forum as an advocate of the need for permitting reform to smooth the way for much more electric power transmission lines, which he described as essential to allow development of renewable power sources.

“It is procedurally impossible to meet our climate goals” under current permitting, Peters said. Transmission projects each take more than 10 years to complete, and 7 of those years are for permitting, he said.

Jason Grumet, chief executive officer of the American Clean Power Association, which promotes wind, solar, and battery storage systems for electricity, said the climate advocacy community is coming to recognize the problems created by federal permitting for renewable energy.

Grumet, a longtime participant in energy policy discussions in the nation’s capital, founded and for 15 years ran the Bipartisan Policy Center. He tentatively suggested, as Capito had, that Congress might be ready in June for the votes to get permitting reform rolling.

Ideas, bills

Capito, acknowledging that there are limits to how much reform realistically can be expected, said the important targets are sharp and enforceable deadlines for federal permitting agencies to get their jobs done, and a limit of perhaps 60 days on how long opponents of a permit can take to file legal challenges.

She especially stressed the idea of penalties for regulators who do not meet their deadlines. The agencies have deadlines now, but there are no consequences for failure to meet the time limits, she said.

Leo Moreno, an executive at electric power company AES Corp. said it is common for project permitting to take 5 years, and people tell “horror stories” of 10-15 years. What is needed is a 1–2-year time frame, Moreno said.

Manchin introduced a permitting reform bill last year and will reintroduce it soon this year to get things rolling in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs. Republicans criticized his bill as too unambitious, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is still calling that bill reform “in name only,” a signal that a bill this year will need to aim for greater change.

Capito late last year introduced a bill to do exactly that. In the Senate, with a Democratic majority, her bill went nowhere.

This year, the House Republican majority, joined by only four Democrats, passed the Lower Energy Costs Act (H.R. 1) Mar. 30, and it will be in the mix for consideration of various elements in the Senate.

Peters, who voted against H.R. 1 in the House, nevertheless said it “has some really helpful ideas that I think we can work with.”

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the most litigated law, produces very slow permitting and is “really not achieving its goals,” Peters said, but he did not suggest there will be big amendments to the act. He noted, “Some people think NEPA can’t be touched.”