Federal approval package for $1 billion increase in climate bill

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Authorizing resources from several federal agencies would increase under Democrats’ climate and tax bill as part of an effort to make it easier to roll out large clean energy and infrastructure projects.

But money from the Cut Inflation Act (HR 5376) – which the House is expected to pass on Friday – would not be enough for the broader regulatory overhaul needed to meet climate goals and modernize the US energy system, some say. that follow the authorization.

To improve permits, the bill would give $40 million to the Environmental Protection Agency, $150 million to the Department of the Interior, $125 million to the Department of Energy, and $100 million. dollars each to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation.

The bill would also provide $30 million to the White House Council on Environmental Quality and $20 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These line items, which are available through 2026 at the earliest, are intended to support activities such as the hiring of more permit staff, the development of programmatic environmental documents and the purchase of new equipment for environmental analysis.

Another provision would provide $350 million to the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council to hire reinforcements that could be deployed to agencies in the field that have a sudden need for permitting personnel. The council brings agencies together early in the permitting process to coordinate their work.

This funding could come into play, for example, “when suddenly the Nevada office of the Bureau of Land Management is hit by a tsunami of solar project applications and they only have 20 guys on staff and they’re already overwhelmed,” said Mario Loyola. , CEQ’s associate director for regulatory reform under the Trump administration.

Better and faster assessments

For Stephen Schima, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, the funding represents a serious effort to get infrastructure projects through the pipeline under the rules that are already in place.

“We’ve long argued that you can’t rationalize your solution to a lack of funding for projects and a lack of resources or funding for review and permitting agencies,” he said.

The money will lead to “more meaningful engagement with communities, better reviews, better outcomes, and save taxpayer dollars in the long run,” Schima said.

For Loyola, however, what is needed to meet President Joe Biden’s decarbonization goals is structural permit law reform under the National Environmental Policy Act instead of more workers.

Congressional Republicans are trying to do that. The Senate recently approved a disapproving resolution (SJ Res. 55) that would roll back the Biden administration’s changes to NEPA regulations, including language that requires agencies to consider climate change impacts when making decisions. evaluation of proposed projects.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) have reached an agreement to propose a separate bill later this year that would expedite authorization by removing some of the procedural obstacles.

“This problem is not going to be solved by throwing money at it,” said Loyola, now a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The problem is structural. It’s not that we don’t have enough staff, it’s that the authorization process is insane. This little potpourri of odds and ends and these little baskets of money, it’s far too little, far too late.

Not all problems are solved

Lisa McDonald, senior partner at consultancy Abt Associates, said Schima and Loyola were making fair points.

“Will this help you? Yes,” she said, referring to the extra cash. “Does this solve all the problems? Nope.”

Several agencies have fallen behind on permit work, and additional staffing would help move applications through the system, according to McDonald.

At the same time, the sheer volume of renewable energy that needs to come online to meet Biden’s climate goals is “enormous, and I don’t know how we’re going to overcome all of this” without systemic changes to permissions. rules, McDonald said.

She also said agencies may struggle to hire qualified permit staff, which are in short supply across the country. Abt Associates itself tries to hire people with the same types of skills, and some of those job openings have been open for months, McDonald said.

Spending money on one problem can also create new problems, she said. For example, the $350 million for FPISC represents a 3,400% increase, albeit spread over five years.

But agencies that suddenly receive a massive influx of cash, with a mandate to quickly staff and undertake new activities, often struggle with logistical challenges such as human resources and basic organizational management, said McDonald.

“When you throw money at a problem, it doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to,” she said.

Range of solutions

Staffing and resourcing was just one of 23 policy recommendations for accelerating clean infrastructure identified by a Bipartisan Policy Center report last year. Suggestions for “really moving the needle,” according to the report, included massive pre-approval of project sites, competitive net-zero grants to states, and federal energy corridors.

The bill’s funding for environmental review staff is “deeply necessary, but not sufficient,” said Xan Fishman, director of energy policy and carbon management at the center. “It’s true that I think the agencies are understaffed and under-resourced to review permits, but that’s not the only thing holding them back.”

The money for the permits marks a major shift from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the stimulus package that poured money into short-term “shovel-ready” projects under the Obama administration. said Ted Boling, a partner at Perkins Coie LLP who worked on environmental reviews and permits at CEQ and Interior.

“Really, the challenge for the federal government as a whole is to replenish the expertise, the management and the leadership to accomplish great things,” Boling said. “You can’t just spend a lot of money and say, ‘Get me a NEPA (review)’ and expect it to be done efficiently.”

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