We’ve all heard The Biden Administration’s mission to “Build Back Better,” but right now, we can only build new clean energy projects and reduce CO2 emissions as fast as we can permit new projects. If we are to truly build back better, the mission ought to be Build Cleaner Faster. Watch ClearPath’s latest whiteboard video explaining the history of the environmental permitting process, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and why modernizations must keep pace with the transition to a clean energy economy that will require tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines carrying hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide from power plants and industrial facilities, new transmission infrastructure to carry electricity around an increasingly electrified country, and new power plants sited everywhere will be key to a clean energy future. This will be the largest continental construction project in history, and every one of those projects will begin with a permit.
Every single one of those projects will begin with a permit. Often called the “Magna Carta” of environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act, also known as “NEPA,” was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970 and was one of the first laws ever written to establish a broad national framework for environmental protection. NEPA’s purpose is to ensure that Federal agencies consider the environmental, social, and economic impacts of proposed projects, and inform and involve the public in the decision making process.
- The NEPA process is supposed to be very simple. A proposed project goes through a review process where it is determined that either:
- The project does not have a significant effect on the environment, and the review process does not require further assessment; OR
- The project may have a significant effect on the environment and is required to complete a more detailed analysis of impacts and potential mitigation options.
Unfortunately, the simple process envisioned in 1970 looks nothing like the process today. Since its inception more than 50 years ago, the NEPA process has become costly and ineffective, slowing down progress and becoming a tool to delay or kill energy projects without providing a better outcome for the environment. Astoundingly, NEPA was enacted as just six pages of legislation. Now, it has resulted in a federal permitting process that can take a project as long as 5 to 10 years to complete and cost millions of dollars. The most impactful and important infrastructure projects are the ones NEPA slows the most. The irony? Delays to good projects means delays to the environmental and economic benefits that could improve Americans’ quality of life.
Making the permitting process more efficient is essential for two reasons: one, stewardship of taxpayer resources, and two, scaling clean energy rapidly. Streamlining and accelerating project permitting should focus on the following four steps:
- Prioritize the review of clean energy projects. Additional resources should be provided to speed up the NEPA review process for projects that significantly reduce emissions.
- Expedite review timelines to ensure a decision is made. The permitting process needs to be shortened so clean energy developers get to a yes — or importantly, a no — faster. Clean energy can only be deployed as quickly as these permits can be issued.
- Reduce the amount of bureaucracy and red tape. Remove obstacles to reduce the burden of the permitting process, and we should consider expanding the use of shorter processes for clean technology.
- Ensure all communities benefit from clean energy projects. These projects can have a positive impact on surrounding communities by creating good-paying jobs, addressing environmental pollution problems, and making clean energy more accessible and more affordable.
At ClearPath, we believe all of this can be done by improving the process without changing any of the environmental protection laws. Let’s remember streamlining NEPA changes nothing requiring a project to comply with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, etc. And, we believe such reform can be done without introducing more regulation or new taxation, or revoking the public’s opportunity to be involved in the review process.
We have seen dozens of major U.S. companies announce ambitious net-zero targets by 2050 or before. NEPA’s current review process is of concern if we are to meet these ambitious climate goals and spur economic growth. The good news: a number of legislative proposals to modernize the process are being written as we speak. The need to act is urgent, and can only be done if there are efforts to Build Cleaner Faster.