The debt-ceiling bill that just passed the Senate eases the way for a new gas pipeline — and for clean energy projects like EV charging and solar panels
- The debt-ceiling bill includes reforms that aim to speed up construction on energy projects.
- It also claims a West Virginia pipeline is in the national interest — and pushes through its completion.
They are an update of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA — long a punching bag for critics on both sides of the aisle who say the environmental permitting process for new projects takes too long and requires too many bureaucratic steps.
"These changes will help us build more quickly and responsibly; build more solar, build more wind, EV chargers, transmission, and the other infrastructure we need to secure a clean energy economy," a White House official said in a Sunday media briefing.
It's a rare bipartisan issue on the Hill. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy on Sunday described permitting as "a frustration with people all across this country on both sides of the aisle. Doesn't matter if you want to build a road, you want to build a renewable energy project, it all gets stopped and studied for years."
The reforms in the bill include limiting the environmental permitting process to two years, along with requiring projects to name a single lead agency that would develop one master environmental review document. It also orders a study of US grid capacity to determine what upgrades are needed to strengthen reliability.
While some climate activists and progressives have hailed the measures as a good start, many are also concerned about the reforms weakening environmental protections. Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, called the NEPA reforms a "major blow" to the environment and vulnerable communities.
"There is no room for compromise when it comes to our bedrock environmental laws, especially for communities that have been systematically targeted by polluters for decades," Grijalva said in a statement on Monday. "NEPA is these communities' strongest—and often their only—tool when it comes to protecting themselves against industry wrongdoing. Rather than strengthen that tool, this bill gives polluters a shield, inevitably worsening an already unacceptable status quo."
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, who also serves on the Natural Resources Committe, said she "could not in good conscience vote for" legislation that proposed "gutting one of our most bedrock environmental laws."
"I am grateful for our President's leadership in protecting the essential climate mitigation and resilience programs in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but will be working to restore the critical protections undermined by the passage of this bill," Stansbury said in a statement to Insider.
Another measure in the bill that's attracted widespread condemnation, including from Democratic lawmakers, is a provision that would greenlight a West Virginia shale gas pipeline championed by the state's Sen. Joe Manchin. A carve-out for the Mountain Valley Pipeline sparked opposition from environmentalists and some Democrats after five years of construction through national forest land has been slowed due to lawsuits and environmental reviews.
Now, the permitting reforms included in the deal would force federal agencies to approve all remaining permits for the pipeline and allow it to bypass the courts and fast-track construction.
A spokesperson for Virginia Senator Tim Kaine told Insider the senator is "extremely disappointed by the provision of the bill to greenlight the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia, bypassing the normal judicial and administrative review process every other energy project has to go through. This provision is completely unrelated to the debt ceiling matter."
While Kaine planned to file an amendment to that provision, the Senate faced a June 5 deadline to pass a debt-ceiling deal before the country loses the ability to pay its bills and sped through votes late Thursday night.
And even after the debt-ceiling debates are finally concluded, the permitting reform push is just beginning. Manchin, who is also the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, plans to bring more comprehensive legislation to the Senate floor by the end of the summer.
The debt ceiling legislation leaves many reforms — most notably building major electricity transmission lines — on the table. Democrats, in particular, have pushed efforts to expand power transmission, which would make it easier for solar and wind projects across the country to connect to the grid.
One measure that didn't make it into the House bill would have required that all US grids be able to transfer at least 30% of their electricity demand to other grids. Instead, the bill requires the issue to be studied for two years.
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