WW0 Investigates: Was Climate Action the Real Victim When Manchin Permitting Plan Died?

WW0 Investigates: Was Climate Action the Real Victim When Manchin Permitting Plan Died?

When it became public that Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) had insisted on an up or down vote for his legislation to expedite energy infrastructure project permitting as a condition of his support for the record investment in climate and clean energy inside the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), many on the left cried foul. The bill provoked a variety of strong and polarized reactions from climate experts, environmental justice advocates, and renewable energy boosters. Ultimately, it was chloroformed not by Senate Democrats, but by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell who made it clear there would not be 60 votes for any package including Manchin’s legislation. Without any Republican support, even if Manchin had the backing of all 50 Senate Democrats, the effort was doomed. McConnell remains angry that Manchin’s vote empowered President Biden to pass his signature piece of climate and clean energy legislation, even though Republicans for years have argued the energy permitting process needs to be reformed and streamlined.

But with Manchin’s bill on ice, WW0 Investigates… asks -- was Manchin’s legislation good or bad for climate action?

NBC: Inflation Reduction Act: Who Qualifies For Tax Credits And Rebates, September 20, 2021.

MSNBC: Manchin | 'We Have A Great Opportunity' On Energy Permitting Bill, September 26, 2022.

What The Manchin Bill Actually Proposed

The bulk of the bill consists of a series of revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a sweeping 1970 law that requires federal agencies to review the environmental impacts of nearly all the decisions they make. The legislation would set a two-year ceiling on NEPA reviews of major infrastructure projects and a one-year ceiling on reviews of minor projects, though it isn’t clear what would happen if agencies exceed those timelines, and the bill doesn’t contain any funding to help agencies meet the new mandates. The bill also shrinks the statute of limitations on court challenges against agency permitting decisions from six years to about five months. This means that projects would receive a yes or no answer within an expedited time frame.

The reforms in the bill would make it easier to build all kinds of energy projects, from pipelines to wind and solar farms. In practice, it’s unclear how big of an effect the bill will have on construction timelines, or how it would benefit fossil fuel projects compared to renewables.

Senator Joe Manchin: Manchin Speaks from the Senate Floor on Permitting Reform, September 20, 2022.

C-SPAN: Sen. Manchin | GOP opposing energy permit reform is 'revenge politics,' September 20, 2022.

What Did Clean Energy Advocates Say?

Progressive opposition to Manchin’s proposal was vocal. “This is a good day for the climate and the environment,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) when the bill failed to move forward. But many liberal and libertarian thinkers actually expressed support for the bill, saying it would speed up clean energy in states that are rushing ahead. The free-market R Street Institute, for instance, has found 42% of the active NEPA reviews at the Department of Energy are for clean energy projects, compared to 15% for fossil fuels. The liberal columnist Ezra Klein, writing for the New York Times, said that the bedrock NEPA environmental law is one of many “checks on development that have done a lot of good over the years but are doing a lot of harm now.”

Why? Manchin’s proposal would have expanded the federal government’s authority to permit transmission lines nationwide. That’s existential for attempts to wean the country off fossil fuels. Renewables, such as wind and solar, don’t produce power all the time and in every place. To switch the US grid over to renewables, huge, high-powered transmission lines are needed to bring electricity from sunny and windy areas of the country to its urban centers.

60 Minutes: How secure is America’s electric grid?, February 27, 2022.

Reuters: Creaky US power grid threatens clean-energy progress, May 12, 2022.

World Economic Forum: Joe Manchin | We Have Got To Accelerate The Permitting Process, May 23, 2022.

Many clean energy projects have been killed by endless litigation from “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) opposition, some of it funded by fossil fuel industry shadowy groups.

According to one analysis from energy modelers at Princeton University, the IRA is expected to cut US emissions by 42% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. But that’s only if the US increases transmission by 2.3% per year -- a rate that is more than double historical averages. If transmission grows at only 1% per year, the modelers estimate that 80% of the bill’s benefits could be lost.

The country’s largest clean energy organization, American Clan Power, endorsed Manchin’s legislation, arguing that:

Making common-sense reforms to our current permitting process will help us unleash the full potential of the clean energy investments spurred by the Inflation Reduction Act and keep us within striking distance of the emissions reduction targets and climate goals we need to achieve. As renewable energy projects become more prevalent and federal involvement likely increases, we must consider reasonable permitting reforms that preserve the substance of bedrock environmental laws while expediting the review process under them. Our current permitting system is overly cumbersome and mired in delays … we run the risk of jeopardizing the deployment of 100 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030 … Congress should ... pass these critical bipartisan reforms.

FT: Expanding America’s superhighways of clean energy, September 21, 2021.

The Bottom Line

Whether you oppose or support the Manchin proposal, permitting for clean energy is critical in a decisive decade of climate action. With Republicans opposed to expediting clean energy, is a return to the Manchin proposal our best hope for deploying clean energy rapidly?

CNBC: “We are in an epic transition from a fossil fuel economy to a clean energy economy” | John Doerr, June 27, 2022.

WTVR CBS6: Wind turbines produced more electricity than coal and nuclear energy for 1st time in US, April 22, 2022.

CBS 8 San Diego: California ahead of clean energy goals, March 11, 2022.

WW0: Creating Jobs While Decarbonizing the US Economy, June 28, 2022.