Why Liberals Should Embrace Permitting Reform

After passing important climate legislation this summer, Congress is turning to permitting reform—the “side deal” that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck with Senator Joe Manchin. Congressional liberals have been balking, fearing the accord will hurt the environment more than it helps. But instead of opposing reform, liberals should recognize that some fix is essential if only to prove that a Democratic House, Senate, and White House can tackle our most significant threats.

To secure Manchin’s vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, Schumer promised to take up a permitting reform package to streamline building new energy projects. It would modernize laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which imposes onerous procedural requirements on development projects to evaluate environmental impacts.

Manchin’s just-released legislation empowers the president to designate energy projects for fast-track energy permitting; limits environmental reviews of new projects to two years; caps the time litigants have to initiate lawsuits against new projects; centralizes permitting for interstate transmission lines; and completes his coveted natural gas pipeline in his home state of West Virginia.

This deal irks progressives. Representative Jared Huffman called it a “sleazy backroom deal.” More than 70 House Democrats sent a letter to leadership demanding that “attempts to short-circuit or undermine [NEPA] in the name of ‘reform’ must be opposed,” as should provisions that “significantly and disproportionately impact low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color.” Some environmental groups oppose permitting reform, seeing it as a fossil fuel Trojan horse. 

No doubt, permitting 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 demands that progressives embrace some permitting reform. 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 key. The same group warns that the IRA’s $370 billion in climate spending may punch well below its weight unless we fix our permitting processes. It found that 80 percent of the IRA’s potential emissions reductions will be lost if we cannot build electricity transmission faster. That’s because much of the law’s impact depends on reaping and distributing abundant clean energy from new infrastructure that must be permitted: wind farms, solar arrays, and other renewable energy sources, plus transmission lines. Unless we drastically streamline permitting, building clean energy infrastructure could take too long to meet our climate goals.

Hindering the IRA from reaching its potential would be a self-inflicted wound for clean energy advocates and a familiar failure for progressives. President Joe Biden’s short-lived child allowance under the American Rescue Plan, impressive though it was in reducing child poverty, missed 18 percent of eligible children. Obamacare’s health insurance marketplaces, thought initially to mark the beginning of the end of employment-based insurance, were projected to cover 25 million people; instead, they’ve leveled off at just about 15 million, an important backstop but not what it could have been. 

This implementation spillage leaves a delta between what a policy should achieve and what it actually achieves. This problem particularly bedevils large-scale infrastructure projects from subway lines to wind and solar farms, which contend with frequent cost overruns, construction delays, and lengthy environmental reviews. High-speed rail, meant to be President Barack Obama’s signature transportation project, is still nowhere to be found. Our failure to execute these laws is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of progressive achievements.

Progressives once knew how to build. Across the Democratic Party, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs are held up as exemplars of liberal ambition and effectiveness. But it’s impossible to imagine FDR’s most celebrated infrastructure projects proceeding anywhere near the same pace in today’s permitting environment. In Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, the historian William Leuchtenburg recounts that FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority—“the world’s largest earthen dam”—brought electricity to a region where, in 1932, “only one Mississippi farm out of a hundred had power.” As TVA Director David Lilienthal put it, “We are working toward no less a goal than the electrification of America.”

Roosevelt’s rural electrification program turned the lights on in rural America. In 1935, 90 percent of American farms lacked electricity. Because of the Rural Electrification Administration, by 1955, 90 percent of farms had it.

Today, we need to generate clean energy and distribute it through new transmission lines. But it takes a decade or longer to construct a single line, partly because of permitting delays. Yet the models forecasting the IRA’s emissions impact assumed that lines would proliferate in just seven years. As a report from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs puts it, under the current permitting environment, “construction of new transmission requires an extensive siting and permitting process that can stretch for over a decade and may put the goal of a carbon-free electric grid by 2035 out of reach.” Permitting reform would help accelerate building the new interstate lines we need to decarbonize. 

To do big liberal things—to make “FDR-size” strides against climate change—will require revisiting regulatory barriers. Of course, we shouldn’t fully return to the 1930s; FDR’s building spree was sped by a lack of environmental laws and lax worker protections. But we should honestly reassess where we’ve overcorrected with laws like NEPA that now ensnare bike lanes and offshore wind farms in drawn-out environmental reviews. 

There will be trade-offs between swift action and deliberative proceduralism, between broad national benefits and possible harms falling on discrete populations. For instance, congressional progressives worry that permitting reform will hurt historically disadvantaged communities by exposing them to new fossil fuel development. But those communities, long plagued by air pollution and environmental harm, would also benefit greatly from hastening a clean energy economy. Princeton’s REPEAT Project estimates that 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 erosion if we stick with the sedentary permitting status quo. 

If liberals can’t cut through permitting sclerosis, then voters will elect those who will (or, at least, who’ll purport to). Here’s the libertarian-leaning columnist Virginia Postrel describing then primary 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 attraction is not just the possibility that the wall will be built but the belief that their candidate is a doer, someone whose abilities transcend the quotidian and inadequate skills of the political class currently in power.

Voters didn’t elect Trump out of disgust with the U.S. permitting process. But years’ worth of projects falling short of their promise bred cynicism and doubt that liberal government could be made to work.

Biden understands this. He recently tweeted, “When Americans start seeing big projects cropping up in their hometowns—cranes going up, shovels in the ground—I want them to feel the way I feel: Pride in what we can do when we do it together.” Recent research validates Biden’s sensibility, finding that the construction of wind turbines “generated large electoral benefits for (pro-renewables) Democratic candidates.” Most voters like tangible environmental progress in their communities, making a virtuous political cycle possible. Building clean energy infrastructure faster benefits climate-friendly lawmakers.

Rather than try to kill permitting reform, liberals should put their stamp on it. Boycotting negotiations guarantees that those who are ambivalent to or oppose a green transition will shape its terms. Liberals have the numbers in Congress to ensure that permitting reform disproportionately accelerates clean energy projects. 

One approach that could work for liberals is simply exempting green energy projects from environmental review. It makes little sense to let green laws delay green projects. But that may not fly with Manchin and his preference for an “all of the above” (meaning renewables and fossil fuels alike) energy portfolio. The coal state senator may be more amenable to proposals from the Institute for Progress, a nonpartisan think tank, which would put clean energy projects on an equal regulatory footing with fossil fuel projects (which receive numerous exemptions from environmental review law). Others have suggested creating specialized “NEPA courts” where technical experts adjudicate environmental review cases with greater speed and consistency than regular federal courts. 

Reform should also take on state and local permitting obstacles that delay or kill wind and solar farms that meet neighborhood opposition. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which supported cell phone tower building over frequent local resistance, can be a good model. 

And while Manchin-led permitting reform may be an “all of the above” double-edged sword, the fossil fuel edge may prove dull. Renewable energy costs have plummeted, and the emerging direction of major industries and the IRA’s clean energy incentives point toward a green future. Car ads are now all about electric vehicles, and clean energy has the economic winds in its sails. 

Permitting reform can help propel American dynamism 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”—the clean electrification of America. That is what this moment calls for—to keep the rising seas and the illiberals at bay.