Permitting reform supporters press forward despite Schumer’s pessimism

Permitting reform supporters press forward despite Schumer’s pessimism
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Capitol Hill’s permitting reform advocates are pressing forward despite Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) throwing cold water on the prospects of advancing legislation to speed up the nation’s energy projects.

Schumer told reporters last week that it would be “virtually impossible” to get something done this session. But lawmakers say they’re still working toward a deal.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Tuesday that he and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who have been working to reach a permitting deal, “finally have language.”

He said during a Senate hearing that they want to “start sharing this language with everyone that people can see where we are,” and lawmakers hopefully “can all get our act together here.”

Barrasso likewise told The Hill on Thursday that he and Manchin were moving in a positive direction.

“We talked about it again this morning, and we made good progress,” Barrasso said Thursday, adding the two are “continuing to make good progress.”

However, a source close to Barrasso told The Hill on Tuesday that while discussions are ongoing, no agreement had been reached.

Washington’s permitting reform discussions ramped up in 2022 after Schumer told Manchin he would pass legislation aimed at speeding up the buildout of energy and infrastructure projects in exchange for Manchin’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ climate tax and health care bill.

The majority leader held votes on a proposal from Manchin at that time, but the effort was blocked largely by Republicans, who felt blindsided by the Manchin-Schumer deal and argued that Manchin’s bill did not go far enough.

But since that time, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been working toward an agreement. Republicans have sought measures like “judicial reform,” which aims to limit legal challenges infrastructure projects face — often on environmental grounds.

Meanwhile, Democrats have sought a buildout of the nation’s power lines as part of an effort to bolster renewable energy.

Despite lengthy negotiations, lawmakers have not announced significant concrete progress toward resolving policy disputes — including GOP concerns about how the costs of the power line buildout would be allocated.

The issue of permitting reform has also internally divided Democrats. Supporters note changes to the electric grid are crucial for getting renewable power off the sidelines. At the end of 2023, more than 95 percent of potential new electricity waiting for permission to plug into the grid was from carbon-free power sources, like solar and wind.

However, opponents argue this buildout should not come at the expense of thorough environmental reviews or the potential to challenge polluting projects in court.

Amid lawmakers’ ongoing disagreements, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last week approved a proposal aimed at bolstering electric transmission lines — a move Schumer said came in place of congressional action, which he described as unlikely to move forward this year.

“I’m happy to listen, but I’ve told Joe Manchin it’s going to be virtually impossible to get something done,” the Senate’s top Democrat said last week.

“I think it’s going to be very hard to get anything done legislatively on transmission at this point given the composition of the House with a Republican majority and so few Republicans eager to do any kind of regional transmission,” he added.

The comments come as Manchin, who has been a key driver of permitting reform, prepares to retire from the Senate, making this his last shot to pass the potentially signature achievement. Key negotiator Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is also set to retire.

The majority leader’s comments met backlash from permitting’s key proponents.

Barrasso told The Hill he believed Schumer was “trying to kill permitting.”

Manchin on Tuesday also criticized the New York Democrat’s remarks.

“If the majority leader, Sen. Schumer, believes that what was done cured all the problems, I’ve got news — it didn’t do it,” he said during an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

“We have to make it easier to build [energy] generation, pipelines [and] transmission lines to meet the moment and that’s why the permitting is needed so desperately,” he added.

And Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), a major backer of power lines, told The Hill on Thursday he didn’t believe the FERC rule “goes far enough.”

“I think that we’re going to run up against the failings of our current system sooner than it appears,” he said. “We need to provide the incentives now to get regional grids improved and interconnected.”

“There’s a bipartisan will to address the inefficiencies in the regional grids,” he added.

On the House side, Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) told The Hill that he and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) are also still working on a bipartisan compromise — estimating that a House proposal could be “a month or two away.”

He said that some of the ongoing issues include allocating costs of power lines and whether to give relief to the oil and gas sector.

“You can’t sit there and say you’re going to be against all the other forms of energy there are so promising and ask for more benefits for oil and gas,” he said.

Nevertheless, Peters was optimistic about the compromise’s prospects.

“The reports of the death of permit reform are greatly exaggerated,” he said.

Yet as the Capitol inches closer to August recess, there is only so much time to negotiate this session — and only so much space on the House and Senate floor.

While Schumer blamed House Republicans for what he described as difficulty in passing legislation, Republicans placed the blame on him.

“If there’s no permitting bill done this year it’s because Chuck Schumer has killed it because he’s unwilling to permit all the sources of energy that America needs and he’s held hostage by the left wing of his party,” Barrasso said

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