One of the most important goals of the Clean Energy and Climate Act, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden, is to decarbonize the electricity system. The core of this effort is to create long-distance transmission lines to provide affordable and clean wind and solar energy to consumers, replace fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But without major reforms to allow for reforms that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) has indicated may be considered by Congress this fall, this critical component of the clean energy transition will be left unfinished, taking longer and costing consumers and businesses more. much. Than it should, and in many cases, simply not happen at all.
For example, many of America’s most abundant wind resources are located in sparsely populated areas such as the Great Plains, where there is less demand. Long-distance transportation is needed to deliver this clean energy to areas of the country where there is a greater demand, including from electric vehicles. The stark reality is that the process of locating existing energy infrastructure and permits falls short of the task of allowing the required new clean energy infrastructure facilities in a timely manner. For example, an environmental audit of long-distance power transmission lines under the Federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and related permits can take five to ten years, or even longer. This is unacceptable in light of the urgent need to drastically reduce emissions.
This concern has been heightened by the recent findings of eminent climatologists that the pace and intensity of climate change, including extreme weather events, are already much worse than expected. However, some interest groups are reflexively opposed to allowing reform on incorrect grounds as a scheme to protect the environment, which is simply incorrect.
Here’s why: If solar or wind projects and their associated transmission lines are delayed or terminated through litigation or other means, as routinely happens under current law, it becomes extremely difficult to meet the challenge of transforming the electricity system and achieving climate targets on time. the appropriate. Therefore, expediting the issuance of permits for clean energy infrastructure is good for the climate.
As part of his agreement to support the Inflation Reduction Act, Senator Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) Schumer confirmed that there will be a vote in the Senate to authorize the reform this fall. Although no proposal to simplify permits is pending before the Senate, draft language has been widely circulated which provides a good structure for the debate.
First, most of the wording in the bill codifies existing NEPA law, regulations, guidelines, and practices, and thus in no way represents a “dismantling” of environmental protection. For example, in the bill, as under current law, a single environmental document may be used where a multi-agency NEPA process exists to expedite simultaneous reviews by agencies at the same time, not to override each agency’s authority. .
Similarly, the bill authorizes the use of what are known as “categorical exceptions” also found in the current law.. A categorical exclusion is a category of actions identified by a federal agency that do not have a significant environmental impact. Therefore, an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement is required. The bill directs the departments of Agriculture, Military, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Interior, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to determine whether more class exceptions can be created that make the overall regulatory process effective and timely.
Secondly, there are several provisions of the law that seek to simplify and speed up the licensing process. This includes the authority for the lead agency to set a timetable for completing the environmental review process. Additionally, if the proposal is deemed a “major project,” the schedule preparation process is more rigorous than it might be, on average two years for NEPA review for a large project and one year for less impactful projects.
Third, the new provisions include an “expedited problem resolution and referral” process that gives participating agencies, the dispatch project sponsor, and the governor of the state in which the project is located the right to request an expedited problem resolution. If there is no solution at that initial stage, the issue will be taken up to the agency heads, the project sponsor, and the governor of the state in which the project is located. If this does not resolve the issue, the matter should be referred to the American Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). If the CEQ process does not result in a resolution being issued, the matter is referred to the President for a decision.
Another important suggestion is that the statute of limitations for challenging an energy infrastructure project is 150 days from the disputed final procedure. This is an important change that will speed up judicial review.
The draft text also provides for “giving priority to energy projects of strategic national importance.” This would require that, no later than 90 days after legislation, the Departments of Energy, Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and FERC designate 25 energy projects for priority federal review. Additionally, the proposed legislation seeks to enable federal guidance to improve permits by providing $200,000,000 in mandatory funding of $20 million annually. This formalizes the process of focusing on major projects which usually occurs more on an ad hoc basis in most departments. This more systematic and transparent approach to identifying 25 major projects can be very beneficial across the entire department.
Fourth, the draft law provides the DOE Secretary with the authority to designate an electric transmission corridor of the national interest and authorizes FERC to improve the building permit for such a proposal. This approach provides a reasonable mechanism for the Energy Department to identify major interstate transportation improvements and provides FERC’s authority to issue a building permit. It’s a significant improvement over the “supportive” transmission locating authority in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was so unworkable that not a single transmission line application had been made in the 17 years since it was enacted.
Fifth, the bill states that FERC has jurisdiction with respect to regulating interstate hydrogen pipeline import and export facilities.
The draft proposal, which was developed under the auspices of Schumer and Manchin-Slim, reflects a very serious effort to improve the environmental and climate change effectiveness of the US clean energy transition while lowering consumer and business costs. Moreover, it may represent the best opportunity in many years for Congress and the administration to help remove obstacles to allowing clean energy and basic infrastructure to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Congress must seize the opportunity.
Daniel Adamson is President of Reg Energy Strategies. He has served on the Senate Energy Committee, the Department of Energy, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where he chaired the Office of Energy Projects.
Paul Bledsoe is a strategic advisor at the Institute for Progressive Policy. He has served on the Senate Finance Committee, the Department of the Interior, and the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.
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