Senator Manchin unveiled his energy permitting bill on September 21 with some resistance from his fellow members in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Schumer has promised to attach the bill to government funding legislation, setting up a possible confrontation, which could force a government shutdown on October 1 if it is not resolved beforehand. The bill would approve permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, establish new deadlines for federal environmental reviews of two years for major projects and one year for those less significant, set time limits on court challenges and expedite Clean Water Act permits. It further requires the president to keep a list of 25 energy projects of strategic national importance for 10 years. The new legislation specifies that for the first seven of those years, five of the 25 projects must be related to either fossil fuels or biofuels, six must be for clean energy and four must be related to critical minerals. According to Manchin, “It takes us two to three times longer than any nation in the world to get anything done.”
The 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline is years behind schedule and over budget, stalled after a federal court in January rejected a permit to cross a national forest. The legislation “requires federal agencies to issue all approval and permits necessary for the construction” of the natural gas pipeline. Securing federal permits and the associated environmental reviews can lead to years of delay and hundreds of millions of dollars in extra costs. In fact, the Mountain Valley Pipeline is now at the $6.6 billion mark, up from its initial estimated cost of $3.5 billion. The project was originally set for completion in 2018 and is now 94 percent complete.
Manchin’s legislation also sets a statute of limitations barring challenges to agency permitting decisions that are not filed within 150 days. It gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the authority to promote transmission facilities both within and between regions of the country so that the nation’s electric grid can be rebuilt for renewable energy, which has caused systems to trip. The permitting overhaul would help build out transmission lines needed to carry renewable power projects, such as wind turbines and solar-panel installations, from remote locations to U.S. demand centers. According to Princeton’s Net Zero America study, the United States will need to increase its transmission grid capacity by 60 percent by 2030 and triple it by 2050 to achieve deep decarbonization via electrification. The existing capacity was built over the last century and more.
An Alternate Bill
Senator Shelley Moore Capito has an alternate bill that also speeds up the timeline for environmental reviews. Capito’s bill contains provisions that prevent the federal government from restricting fracking and allowing states to take over authority from the federal government for energy production on public lands, which are currently producing much less energy per acre than their private and state land counterparts. Both the Capito and Manchin proposals seek to limit state authority to block energy projects that run through their waters, giving them a year to do so and limiting the reasons states can use to justify their decisions. Capito’s legislation would limit which waters are subject to federal protections, which Manchin’s bill does not do.
For the Mountain Valley Pipeline, Manchin’s bill specifies that within 30 days, federal agencies need to issue authorizations for its construction and operation—actions that are not subject to judicial review. Capito’s proposal is similar, but would give agencies 21 days.
These bills will not only help the oil and gas industry, but also “the clean-energy revolution” that Biden’s climate/tax law’s $370 billion promises in new climate spending. According to Senator Manchin, his permitting bill came from his frustration seeing U.S. officials turn to foreign energy producers for additional energy supply, overlooking cleaner but inaccessible U.S. energy resources. The permitting bill would speed up environmental impact reviews conducted by federal agencies for big infrastructure projects, including pipelines and wind farms, required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The Progressive Policy Institute released a study indicating that renewable energy projects take an average of 2.7 years from proposal to permit decision, transmission projects take an average of 4.3 years, and pipelines take an average of 3.5 years, including those that could in the future transport hydrogen. Those times were based on a sample of energy projects between 2010 and 2017. The report goes on to say that these average review times obscure the devastating impact that NEPA review and equivalent requirements from state governments have on clean energy infrastructure and other pro-environment projects. Cape Wind, an offshore project was caught up in litigation for 16 years; another Massachusetts project, Vineyard Wind, is going ahead after years of NEPA review. NEPA reviews have also delayed wildfire prevention by an average of 3.6 to 7.2 years, depending on the project type. Regulatory and permitting roadblocks are also causing delays in expanding intermittent wind and solar power—goals of the Biden administration’s climate program.
Senator Manchin is fighting for his permitting reform bill to pass, which Senator Schumer promises to attach to the continuing resolution package to keep the government funded through mid-December—a trade for Manchin’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act. The bill would enable both oil and gas and renewable energy projects to proceed at a faster pace by restricting the time allotted for environmental reviews that are required by NEPA, among other needed reforms. Another bill by fellow West Virginia Senator Capito goes a bit further than the Manchin bill, but also has many similarities.