Democrats open to pressure from Manchin to allow reform

Democratic leaders yesterday said a deal on a permit was crucial to getting West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to “yes” on a separate climate and social spending package.

And while not everyone is thrilled with it, some see it as a silver lining.

“The goal was to enable reform, not just for fossil fuel pipelines, but for transmission lines,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.). “They’re sort of lumping them together.”

Manchin signaled that without allowing reform, there would be no deal. As for details on the reform, there were few yesterday: Manchin’s office said none of the provisions have been made public.

The changes would be part of separate legislation requiring 60 votes, rather than a simple majority used as part of the budget reconciliation process for the climate package.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) told reporters yesterday that Manchin had two main requests: ‘It was the other thing, other than the rental, that Sen. Manchin asked for.’ , did he declare. “We agreed on a provision. There are some good things in it. »

Yet Schumer acknowledged the reality that streamlining the permitting process would help free up fossil fuels. “There are certain types of permits that also impede clean energy,” he said.

Announcing an agreement on the reconciliation package on Wednesday, Manchin said Democratic leaders were “committed to advancing a series of common-sense licensing reforms this fall that will ensure that all energy infrastructure, from transmission to pipelines and export facilities, can be built efficiently and responsibly.”

Schumer said the deal on $369 billion in climate spending included commitments from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the White House to try to include the provision in a funding bill. separate interim plan that Congress will need to pass in September to support government operations.

In a Zoom call yesterday, Manchin referenced his prized Mountain Valley pipeline as a possible project reaping the benefits. The pipeline — which he said could be in production in six months — would carry natural gas from Appalachia to the southeast (green wireJuly 28).

Democrats point to positives

Although they had to swallow the licensing effort to pass the reconciliation bill, Democrats yesterday insisted that any licensing reform legislation would extend beyond just fuels infrastructure fossils researched by Manchin.

Democrats seemed wide open to a permit rewrite in exchange for a generational investment in clean energy — $369 billion in total. Even progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) has signaled she’s willing to allow reforms if they speed up the energy transition.

“There’s something to be said that it’s not just about licensing oil and gas,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters. “As we build renewable infrastructure in the United States, that too will also be subject to licensing issues.”

Other Democrats reserved judgment but did not reject a bill out of hand.

“We all need to look at this and understand what’s in it,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) told E&E News. “It seems to me that a basic point is that there are ways to streamline permit processing without lowering environmental standards. That’s important.”

Smith pointed to efforts first launched under the Obama administration to help streamline some reviews of transportation projects. Congress passed the reforms as part of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill of 2015, and some, like Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), have in recent weeks expressed support for the passage of measures to to strengthen these provisions.

Even so, other Democrats closer to environmental review processes said they were skeptical.

“Any compromise will have winners and losers, so it’s important that we see all the details before declaring victory,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, in a statement. communicated.

He said he was particularly concerned that the bill’s mention of “comprehensive permit reform” was only a “understatement for gutting our most basic environmental and health protections. public, such as the National Environmental Policy Act”.

“There is no doubt that the urgency of the climate crisis requires swift action, but it would be counterproductive to permanently jeopardize the very laws that protect us and our planet,” he said. .

Trust issues for Republicans

Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) at the Capitol. | Francis Chung/E&E News

Republicans had similar mixed reactions.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) told reporters he expected Republicans to balk at the proposed reforms. He alleged that Democratic administrations would not follow through on the changes, regardless of the action.

“Here’s my concern about it: We have a lot of reforms allowing the infrastructure bill that the Department of Transportation and others are just ignoring,” Cramer said. “And that’s what bureaucracy always does. They ignore permitted reforms because it is their power base.

“I don’t know if we could ever trust a Democratic administration to do anything to help expedite or streamline licensing,” Cramer added.

He has been one of the strongest advocates for changes to the way the federal government conducts environmental assessments. Proponents of the reform say delays in reviews have caused project deadlines to stretch years beyond what is reasonable.

The issue was a core tenet of the bipartisan energy gang Manchin formed in May, but ultimately failed after Manchin returned to the table in reconciliation talks.

“We had a pretty good idea of ​​the kinds of reforms we’ll be talking about: NEPA reform, streamlining things, doing things concurrently rather than back-to-back and all in a string of them,” Cramer said of his experience. with these talks. . “I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t take long for smart people to come up with a package.”

Other Republicans seemed more eager to embrace the reforms.

“We have to see what’s in there, but hey,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said of his interest.

Sullivan, for his part, intends to push as early as next week for a resolution of the Congressional Review Act that would seek to reverse changes made by the Biden administration to allow the streamlining of reforms put in place under the Trump administration.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) has also expressed willingness to back a deal.

“If it’s moved on to something else that we’re going to vote for, and if not this bill stands on its merits, of course I would support it,” Cassidy told reporters.

Like Cramer, Cassidy cautioned that he would want to see the specifics first, particularly if permission decisions would be tied to any type of schedule.

Given the political maneuvering on fossil fuels that culminated in a deal with Manchin, Cassidy said he doesn’t trust the Biden administration not to slow down permits.

“Unless there is some kind of shot clock – you have to accomplish it with this amount [of time] – I don’t trust them,” Cassidy said. “Why should we trust them? They just lied to the American people that they were doing everything possible to lower the price of fuel.

Towards a “real reform”

Lobbyists also suspected that allowing changes wouldn’t be enough to convince Republicans to back something so politically hot.

“Granted, it’s difficult with a divisive reconciliation so close to an election separating political expediency from real reform,” said Alex Herrgott, who founded the Permitting Institute after leading the White House Permitting Board of Trump.

He said he was going to the White House today to brief officials on the details of the clearance.

“Just like the last administration, there are smart people in positions of power who have shown us they want to make a difference,” he said.

In a similar vein, Earthjustice Chair Abigail Dillen said, “We are past the deadline to address the climate crisis”, but stressed the importance of community input in the large infrastructure.

“At Earthjustice, we stand ready to fight all efforts to erode our fundamental environmental protections in the name of climate action,” she said.

Already, sweeping reforms to “streamline” environmental review have been included in the infrastructure law enacted last fall. These included making permanent the White House permit board — hated by some Greens for seeking to speed up environmental review — and setting two-year timeline goals.

A bipartisan group of senators including Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) backed the effort at the time.

The provisions drew anger from environmentalists who believed the actions would weaken environmental scrutiny under NEPA, which requires the government to analyze climate and community impacts for major projects like bridges and pipelines.

Journalists George Cahlink and Nico Portuondo contributed.

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