Republicans slam Biden NEPA revamp, threaten permitting talks

Source: By Emma Dumain, Robin Bravender, E&E News • Posted: Monday, July 31, 2023

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.).

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) speaks during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Congressional Republicans are seething about the Biden administration’s plans to change how the government reviews major energy infrastructure projects ranging from oil and gas pipelines to solar installations.

The White House released its highly anticipated proposal last week to overhaul how the government reviews projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The Biden administration billed the changes as a compromise between those pushing to get projects online faster and those concerned about climate and pollution impacts.

But GOP lawmakers slammed the White House approach, calling it a “dishonest” and “sneaky” attempt to favor renewable energy over fossil fuels.

The feud over the White House NEPA plans could complicate further negotiations on permitting, even as Democrats and Republicans alike say more changes are needed to build off modest revisions agreed to as part of a larger deal to raise the debt ceiling back in May.

Democrats want to ease regulatory burdens around expanded transmission deployment for renewables like wind and solar, while Republicans still think there should be limitations on citizens’ ability to litigate over permits for energy projects they fear will harm the environment.

The Biden administration’s proposal aims to speed up approvals for renewable energy projects while encouraging agencies to limit projects’ impacts on climate change and on communities already burdened by pollution.

It also includes revisions that were agreed to in recent bipartisan legislation, including page limits and deadlines for environmental reviews that can take years to complete.

However, the White House’s proposed permitting overhaul isn’t what some Republicans were hoping for — or expecting.

The draft rule “is just another example of unchecked bureaucrats trying to force their radical agenda and burden Americans with red tape,” said House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.).

The administration, he said, “ignores the will of Congress” that was detailed in the bipartisan compromise to raise the federal debt limit.

“Dishonest deals are part of the playbook of this administration, and you can be certain House Republicans won’t stand idly by while the CEQ prioritizes their political agenda instead of the struggling Americans who can hardly afford to keep their lights on,” Westerman said.

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) — who has led discussions in his chamber about overhauling the permitting process broadly and more recently represented the interests of House Republicans on debt ceiling negotiations with the White House — was likewise irked by the developments Friday.

“The White House continues to be over their skis in regard to attempting to use a flawed approach and the wrong tool to address climate change,” Graves said in a series of tweets.

“Their methodology appears to double down on the Biden Administration’s approach to energy and climate change which has resulted in higher greenhouse gas emissions, more dependence on foreign energy, and unaffordable gasoline and electricity prices,” he added.

Graves also said the changes would “actually increase the number of frivolous lawsuits challenging environmental reviews” and “discriminate against the types of projects that may benefit from expedited reviews or categorical exemptions.”

Alyssa Roberts, a spokesperson for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said Monday that the NEPA proposal “fully and faithfully implements new permitting efficiencies directed by Congress.” CEQ is charged with overseeing NEPA across the government.

What the proposal “does not do,” Roberts said, is “adopt radical provisions” backed by House Republicans “that were not part of the bipartisan deal — such as changes that would limit environmental reviews to ignore a project’s effects on climate change or ignore the cumulative effects of adding more and more pollution to already overburdened communities.

“The Biden-Harris administration defended Americans’ right to clean air and clean water in that deal, and this proposed rule upholds those protections while also helping build important projects faster and better for a clean, secure energy future,” Roberts said.

Future talks in jeopardy?

Westerman and Graves are watching CEQ these days with significant degrees of suspicion and distrust, following an appearance by the office’s head, Brenda Mallory, at a Natural Resources Committee hearing in June.

During an exchange with Graves during that hearing, Mallory asserted that the debt deal’s permitting changes were “very much in line with the work we were already doing,” suggesting the agreement codified changes that were already the norm in the federal government.

A CEQ spokesperson told E&E News after the hearing that “Chair Mallory was right. The bipartisan budget law incorporated several existing best practices into the statute, including how to analyze reasonably foreseeable environmental effects.”

Graves, however, was furious with the implication that the White House was ignoring congressional intent and warned that Mallory’s attitude could poison the well for future partnerships with Hill Republicans.

A few weeks later, Graves told reporters that “botch[ing] the implementation” of the debt limit deal would result in a “complete lack of trust” — one that could “absolutely torpedo any opportunity to do another round of negotiations” to finish the job on permitting.

Graves’ warning carries significant weight, as he has been working with members of both parties on legislation that could advance the permitting discussion to give Democrats and Republicans more of what they could secure during the debt limit talks.

Should the White House “tilt the interpretation in a way that was not consistent with our intent,” he cautioned last month, then they can “sit there and wallow in their pen of crap trying to get things built because I’m not going to do anything.”

Graves has constantly argued Democrats have more to lose than Republicans in the permitting debate, as they have investments in the Inflation Reduction Act that wouldn’t be able to get off the ground without serious reforms to the current system.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), “This is the exact opposite of what American families need. It’s clear Congress needs to pass meaningful, bipartisan legislation that fixes our broken leasing and permitting system. We should pursue changes in law that will benefit all energy sources and projects, not just those favored by President Biden.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who has introduced her own permitting overhaul proposal with Barrasso, agreed the Biden administration is heading in a precarious direction.

“Congress was clear in the bipartisan Fiscal Responsibility Act, which the president signed into law, that the permitting and building process would be streamlined and made more efficient,” she said in a statement.

“Once again, the Biden administration is attempting to layer on more requirements to achieve their own misguided policy priorities that create confusion in an already complicated regulatory process,” Capito said. “This rulemaking just shows the need for further action by Congress to clarify the intent of NEPA.”

Biden allies hail boost for renewables

Democrats, environmentalists and renewable energy advocates welcomed Biden’s planned changes to NEPA.

“With 2 terawatts of renewable energy still waiting to connect to the grid, it’s clear that we need a more effective and efficient environmental review process,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who has sought in the past to find common ground with Capito on the permitting issue.

Carper said the Biden team’s proposal would “expedite the deployment of clean energy and critical infrastructure projects across our country while strengthening public input and advancing environmental justice.”

White House climate and energy official John Podesta applauded President Joe Biden for making permitting a top priority of senior administration officials “for the first time in history.”

The proposal, Podesta said, will “help accelerate infrastructure and clean energy deployment while promoting meaningful public input and advancing environmental justice.”

But their enthusiasm is dampened by critics whose buy-in will be critical for advancing permitting overhaul policy.

Sen. Kevin Cramer on Friday said the Biden administration’s proposal will “make it easier than ever for their environmental activist friends to tie up and drag out expensive litigation.”

The North Dakota Republican added, “I am sick and tired of the double speak and sneaky backdoor attempts to regulate fossil fuels out of existence and add bureaucratic hurdles to everyone who needs a permit.”

Many industry representatives also criticized the White House’s plans.

“At a time when the Biden administration is continuing to call on producers to increase supply, CEQ’s NEPA proposal is the latest example of the administration’s mixed messaging on energy policy,” said Dustin Meyer, senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.

The proposed rule “does include some permit streamlining measures required by the debt ceiling agreement, it also contains provisions that would further delay project approvals for nearly $2 trillion in public investments,” said Marty Durbin, U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president of policy.

He called the proposal “a step in the wrong direction.”