Co-authors Aspen Institute report: “Building Cleaner, Faster”
Bill Loveless [00:00:05] We need more energy infrastructure. But energy permitting, regulations primarily established through the National Environmental Policy Act, are notoriously slow and can oftentimes delay projects indefinitely. Senator Joe Manchin has been trying to pass permitting reform for over 20 months, and his most recent proposal catapulted the issue into the national spotlight. Mansions Bill aims to reform environmental review and permitting processes. Most notably, it would reduce the time it takes to get an energy project approved. The bill faces opposition from both the right and the left. Some Democratic politicians have criticized the measure as a sop to big oil, and some conservatives argue that it lacks clear and meaningful implementation requirements, since Manchin couldn’t muster enough support for the proposal. It was ultimately polls without permitting reform. The U.S. will struggle to build new projects, putting climate targets and energy security at risk. What will it take to pass bipartisan legislation? And how can regulatory review balance environmental protection and infrastructure development? This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Bill Loveless. Today on the show, Katie McGinty and Jim Connaughton. Katie is the Vice President and Chief Sustainability and external Relations Officer for Johnson Controls. She was the first woman to serve as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and as deputy assistant to President Clinton. Jim Connaughton is the chairperson of Nautilus Data Technologies. He served as the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality for the George W Bush Administration and as the director of the White House Office of Environmental Policy. Last year, Katie and Jim coauthored a report for the Aspen Institute titled Building Cleaner Faster. It concluded that environmental review and permitting reform were necessary to decarbonize the economy. I talked with Katie and Jim about permitting reform. Senator mentions proposed Bill and why such action is so important for building new energy infrastructure. Katie McGinty. Jim Connaughton, welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange.
Katie McGinty [00:02:34] Thanks, Bill. Great to be with you. Hey, Jim.
Jim Connaughton [00:02:36] Hey, Katie. Thanks, Bill. Good to be on the program.
Bill Loveless [00:02:39] Well, it’s great to have you here and it’s great to have you here together, given the work you’ve done, both done together on this topic. And I’m glad we’re having the chance to talk about it. You know, both of you have spent years thinking about environmental impacts and acting on them. Now, the process of conducting environmental reviews and issuing permits is getting a lot of attention, including in Congress, where a major environmental review bill drafted by Senator Joe Manchin came up for consideration, only to be pulled back in the face of opposition. What do you make of the attention the topic has been getting lately, Katie, and what do you make of the difficulties confronting this legislation?
Katie McGinty [00:03:20] Yeah. Bill Well, to me, it’s music to my ears that these topics are front and center. And the reason is twofold. One is the urgency of the moment. You know, Mother Nature is shaking her fist. The rapid acceleration of what we see as the absolutely serious and harsh consequences of uncontrolled climate change have become more and more apparent. On the other hand, there’s always a nervousness because our foundational environmental laws have served us very, very well. And so when it comes time potentially to make some changes to that theme, that’s something that people will look at with some concern and trepidation. I think what Jim and I have tried to a light on, though, is hold on to that core environmental protection that’s foundational, while enabling us to have the processes and procedures to actually tackle and solve the climate problem.
Bill Loveless [00:04:28] Yeah. Jim, do you are you feeling the same sort of enthusiasm over seeing this topic come to the forefront again?
Jim Connaughton [00:04:35] I’ve been waiting for this conversation for more than 30 years. We have built an edifice of protective laws on health, safety, environment, natural resources that we should be quite proud of in America. And it’s a beacon, actually, for the rest of the world. You know, as much as we are self-critical. We do have the most stringent controls with the most stringent penalties. And so and we spent the last 50 years building up standards. And so the world we have a compliance ethic in America now. And Katie and I lived through that Bill. You lived through that. And we’re now at the other side, which is big project developers, especially clean that project developers come to a project with an attitude of 100% compliance going into the build and into all operations. And so how do we capitalize on the fact that everybody now knows how to comply and they know how to sustain compliance during operations? And that’s really what the report that Katie and I and a few dozen other former policymakers got together and said, can we just say yes to the projects we know are going to work so we can free up the resources on the more in the more challenging areas and get on with the task of really unleashing investment in innovation and implementation at the scale of the of the need. And the scale of the need is exceptional. And we are talking about tens, if not hundreds of thousands of projects to get to net zero. And that zero is not just a climate benefit. Net zero is an air pollution benefit and net zero with green infrastructure. And green power is also just a huge sort of jobs and redevelopment benefit. So we should be getting on with the task as rapidly as possible. I call it What is it about? Yes, you don’t understand and let’s let’s get this stuff built. We know we need it. We know we want it. And so let’s get it now.
Bill Loveless [00:06:26] Well, I want to get into the details of of that report that you wrote. You and Katie wrote for the Aspen Institute, as well as Senator Manchin. Bill. But your first you know, I think past is Prolog, right? I saw that all the time when I used to drive up to Capitol Hill or take a cab up to Capitol Hill to cover hearings when I was a reporter. It’s it’s engraved there on the archives in our capital. But so let’s look past a little bit. Let’s understand to understand this topic, I think we really need to appreciate the National Environmental Policy Act of 1978, which promotes the enhancement of the environment, and it established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, which each of you headed at one time. It came at a time of heightened public concern over the environment, as did other environmental statutes like the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. Katie, explain the purpose of the law and how it came about way back then.
Katie McGinty [00:07:24] Well, I really think that the National Environmental Policy Act is exactly the kind of. Frame that we need because it is an outcomes oriented piece of legislation. It is about maximizing environmental upside and minimizing environmental downside of every major or significant federal action. Now, the reason I like that umbrella type of approach is so that when we look at the in the visual pieces of, as we say, media specific environmental legislation, safe drinking water, clean water, clean air. Those pieces of legislation looking at the quality of our soils that can become disjointed in the National Environmental Policy Act, we can take a global look. So what does that have to offer as we think about the moment we find ourselves in right now? I think what Jim and I are saying is, as you think of the overarching impact of climate change, it is a threat to clean air. It is a threat to biodiversity. It’s a threat to our water resources. What we’re suggesting here is let’s take an outcome orientation. We have to get to net zero and let’s then ensure a positive integration of our environmental laws so that each one is accelerating our progress and frankly, that some of the paperwork aspects aren’t making it so that we wind up harming clean air, clean water, and certainly the climate. And I think to just kind of cut through that, one thing we are not talking about, Bill, is changing any environmental outcome that our foundational environmental statutes call for. All we’re talking about is streamlining the paperwork so we can get to a yes or no on a project in real time.
Bill Loveless [00:09:34] Yeah. Jim, you agree with it? We’re talking streamlining here. You’re talking streamlining here and going about proposing these kinds of reforms.
Jim Connaughton [00:09:43] I think that’s exactly right. And I think the central point to know is it’s not only the National Environmental Policy Act review, which is a federal review, but each state has its own version of that. But any large project, whether it’s the solar, wind, geothermal, carbon capture and storage, you know, natural gas into hydrogen, which we’re all working on now, small hydro. Any of these projects face not just environmental review, but they also must go through Clean water Act, clean Air Act, wetlands. There’s you know, there’s anywhere from 10 to 20 or 25 different permitting process is done by different people. And at the state and federal level on the government side. And so what happens is it’s just it’s too much. It’s too much. There’s not enough reviewers, especially as we do lots of distributed projects, which is also part of the equation. And so as a result, the system is the system is broken down. We concluded a little bit quite seriously, I was gonna say glibly, but also seriously that, you know, this net zero goal by 2050 is ecologically essential, it’s technologically feasible, it’s economically achievable, but it’s procedurally impossible. And we’ve had since since President Nixon, every administration, you know, Carter and on Reagan and on these efforts at federal regulatory streamlining, just by getting the regulators together, the Prime Minister gather. And every one of those efforts has been very well intentioned. It’s resulted in maybe dozens or maybe hundreds of projects getting through a little bit faster. But the result is they’ve all failed because they’ve failed at scale. And if we want to get out of the old polluting greenhouse gas emitting stuff into the new nonpolluting, you know, health saving stuff, we need to actually legislate through these these Byzantine regulatory processes. And that’s where we need are legislators at the federal, state level, Democrats and Republicans, to understand that new investment in all this new infrastructure is going to produce this gigantic new net environmental and social gain. And then we can have an exception process, let’s say yes to these projects automatically where we can and have an exception process for, you know, for projects that require, you know, a little bit of extra care and effort because they have some potential for significant, you know, negative negative harm at some at some scale. And so it’s just changing the default. And why does it need to be legislated? Needs to be legislated. So we also don’t end up in endless litigation. And again, everyone’s well-intentioned in their efforts, but we’ve. Cause the situation where we are delaying the environmental progress we want through through endless processes, both on the industrial side and on the NGOs side, holding up these investments in these in this critical, critical infrastructure.
Katie McGinty [00:12:46] And Bill, let me jump in there, because you were also pointing us to that some history, and I think it’s helpful to actually think about that. We’ve been here before and done important improvements to the process around some of our environmental laws. When we saw that actually the processes that had been in place were harming the environment rather than protecting it. What are some examples to come to mind? So for years and decades we saw properties tied up in Superfund categories and it was a lot of money going to lawyers and very little relief going to communities that had these Superfund sites in their backyard. Well, back in the day, people innovated and said, let’s create a brownfields program where we streamline a lot of that and enable us to get these toxic chemicals out of people’s backyards and get away from all the litigation that otherwise was stifling progress and amping pollution in people’s lives. So that was an important innovation under the Endangered Species Act. Similarly, we realized that when everything became a Hail Mary pass and you couldn’t act to protect the CC until it was on the brink of extinction, that was a losing game. And so something called habitat conservation plans were innovated so that you could take an ecosystem, look and ensure the habitat that supports that species and the thousands of other species that would have been dependent on that habitat. These were creative innovations, and I do again want to come back to we need that creativity of innovation. Now to underscore the urgency of like Jim was just laying out in terms of the procedural impossibility, it should be enormously alarming to any environmentalist who cares about tackling climate change that, for example, the biggest electricity system integrator, PJM in the country just recently announced that they just could not proceed with 2500, almost all of them renewable energy projects that were waiting in a queue to be connected to the PJM grid. They just put up the white flag and said, we can’t possibly get through the process that is required to build out the grid to accommodate these renewable energy electrons. Now that has 2500 projects where enough green electrons to almost be the equivalent of the entire carrying capacity of the nation’s electricity grid. We have to have those projects. They have to get done. 2050 is tomorrow. And so there’s an urgency of the moment. And neither Jim nor I are talking anything about eroding environmental progress. But we’ve got a ticking time bomb of environmental disaster unless we get out of our own way here.
Bill Loveless [00:16:02] Yeah. You both have watched this issue for a long time, yet you refer to these laws were passed in the past. Katie But do you think in the in the political environment we have today on Capitol Hill, there’s a willingness to really sit down and work on these issues and to enact some sort of legislation. From what we saw recently, that’s not the case.
Jim Connaughton [00:16:25] Well, so I think what’s interesting is the conversation is now front and center. I mean, I’m just pleasantly astounded that it’s now the top of the agenda in every major climate meeting I go to and in every major actually equity, you know, conversation around environmental justice and equity that I go to the opportunity to, you know, bring jobs, redevelop and change, you know, brownfields to green fields. It’s coming up everywhere. And so I’m delighted for that, number one. Number two, the I think the hurry up the mansion bill created what appears to be tension because it was too fast, It was too limited. There was no regular order that typically produces bipartisan outcomes. But I didn’t hear in any of the conversation a lack of getting to an end game on a quite substantial permanent reform. Not a little bit. I think I think the real argument was there’s some aspects to what was in the Manchin bill that the folks, some folks on the left thought was too. Friendly to fossil. And then and then there was a whole bunch of other folks. And I include myself among them. That was it doesn’t the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to get us all the clean energy and infrastructure that we that we need and want as quickly as possible. And so taking a moment, stepping back and doing a process on a bipartisan basis, I think is going to earn a lot of interest. And by the way, I just want to underline. Most of the approvals actually occur at the state level. So you don’t only need a federal solution, you need a big cooperative with all of the states to use analogies. Katie Katy, use the brownfield one. I want to expand on that. Brownfields. There were 77,000 abandoned industrial sites in America, only 7000 of which were likely had some capital additions. Nation that needed cleanup, and yet all 77,000 were left fallow undeveloped. Well, this unanimous legislation that went through regular order took a year, earned bipartisan support. Well, it cleared the way for those 70,000 sites that have no contamination to get developed right away. And it provided funding for the 7000 that needed some clean up to get cleaned up and also get developed right away. And so that when we do come together on a bipartisan basis and take take a breath, do the work, set the standards, we can actually do very, very big things. This is ten times bigger than the brownfields bill. So we this is a very big thing with a very big positive outcome for everybody. So if we do this right and do this, you know, over a real legislative cycle, I think there’s great promise in getting to success.
Katie McGinty [00:19:07] And let’s build on that. Bill So I will just real quick, because it may be being tangible like Jim is helping us to be here, can relieve some of the worries or concerns. So let’s take it take a specific example. A former an abandoned coal fired power plant site. We believe that there should just be automatic approval of a major solar farm to be built on that former coal fired power plant site. You could think similarly with respect to brownfields. You have innovative legislation that has some state and local jurisdictions teeing up areas of their community where they would want economic redevelopment, for example. Well, why don’t we take a page from that book and similarly have those jurisdictions tee up areas that could host clean energy resources and have all of that agreed up front so that the projects are not bogged down or stopped because of years of endless wrangling. That’s tangibly what we’re talking about. Let’s move on. Those things that are a net net clear positive investment and not have those suffer or get stopped for unnecessary bureaucracy or paperwork.
Bill Loveless [00:20:28] Yeah, you know, I want to get into some of the aspects of the mansion Bill, as well as the Aspin report that might contribute to this sort of reform. But this is we’re talking about the Congress right now. You know, I have to get into politics a little bit here. What we did see some bipartisan cooperation this year on on legislation. And we’ve seen it over the past two years, including on infrastructure. But, you know, we’re headed for an election in a few weeks. And it seems as though the partizan rancor might only intensify going forward. Do you think there’s going to be much of a an appetite on Capitol Hill to even consider this rather complicated issue going forward?
Katie McGinty [00:21:11] A lame duck can be a beautiful thing.
Jim Connaughton [00:21:16] That’s very funny. The is for me, the challenge is I think we’re jumping on this too fast. I think we need to get through this election cycle and then we need to go through a regular, you know, 12 month to 18 months cycle through the subcommittees, through the committees, to the floor, to the president with the new Congress. And here’s why. $1.2 trillion for infrastructure, you know, over 400 billion and the Inflation ductIon Act and other other related pieces of of bipartisan legislation. IRA was not, although I think the clean energy pieces might have been. But the point is, the reality is within the next 18 to 24 months, every governor and every community in the country is going to be looking around saying, Where are my projects? And projects don’t happen magically. You have to go through permitting and approvals for all of this infrastructure. And the big obstacle is what we’ve been talking about. And so as we head to the presidential cycle, every presidential primary candidate’s going to be looking around saying, how is this money being spent and what’s getting built? And they’re going to be very, very, very unhappy. We know from the stimulus back in 2009 that the federal and state bureaucracy can only permit so much. So we can’t expect any more than what we saw back in 2009, 2010. And we didn’t see as much as we wanted. A whole lot of money was given back to the Treasury and it was less money than we’re talking about now. So, so so we know for a fact that this money can’t get out the door and under the current system. And so that’s what tends to get legislators and governors and state legislators a little bit excited when what they were promising is not being delivered. And I think that’s where we’re going to be. I’d rather skip that step. I think. No, Katie would do. I’d rather skip that step and just get on with delivering the projects and spending the money.
Bill Loveless [00:23:05] Interesting. Well, the bill authored by Senator Manchin would set time limits on environmental reviews for projects and require the president to identify energy projects that are most critical for the United States, among other things. Katie, what do you consider to be the most important provisions of this of this Manchin Bill?
Katie McGinty [00:23:25] Well, I think there’s a couple of things, and this will blur a little bit of what’s in the Manchin bill. And what Jim and I have been recommending in the in our report. So one is identifying those areas almost like zoning ahead of time, those areas where you would have pre-approval of projects that for us should pass a pretty serious decarbonization test. Right. So these have to be projects that are meaningfully going to bend the curve for us with respect to decarbonization. So you would have a category of projects that would be of that nature where the default is that that project is approved. You would have a second category of projects. That is clearly a project that will help us to dial down on carbon emissions in the energy sector, but either is not going to be built on a pre built piece of property or where there’s some novelty to the project. Maybe it is hydrogen production where we’re still in earlier stages of understanding what the the the environmental and safety precautions should be there. So that’s where we would have some firm time limits. And a third piece and this is controversial, but we would have it be a stick and not just a carrot for states to align their permitting with that overall approach. And if there is a reluctance on the part of a state to to align, then there would be consequences like not being able fully to participate in the Inflation Reduction Act, clean energy dollars. And the last thing would just say about that is that feels like, oh my goodness, brave new territory. But I’ll tell you, Bill, when we’ve been serious about environmental issues before, we have not hesitated to say, listen, this is real is rain, and we’re going to insist. Think of the highway and transportation bills where if you fail to meet your Clean Air Act requirements, a state stands in jeopardy of losing those transportation dollars. So we’ve been serious before. We have taken it to people’s pocketbooks before, and we need to do that with respect to climate change.
Bill Loveless [00:25:54] Yeah, Jim.
Jim Connaughton [00:25:54] So the Manchin bill is very well intentioned, but and so I want to praise the intent, but I want to criticize the outcome because it’s it’s a drop in a lake of need. Okay. And just a few examples. There is this provision, I call it. A Noah’s Ark provision which says there’s going to be 25 projects that get super special, streamlining attention from the federal government. Okay. That leaves out the states, by the way, from the federal government. And then each of the 25 two in every category gets the special attention. So geothermal, wind, nuclear. So there’ll be two in each category. Okay. We are talking about the need to get to 2050 is in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of projects. And so why just two and why why pilot that over the course of whatever it is, 5 to 7 years and hopefully find ourselves ten years from now figuring out that we got things a little bit faster, that that just that’s not matched to the moment at all. Again, right intention. But if it’s you know, I’d rather make Noah’s ark include all the endangered clean energy and infrastructure projects, not just 25 of them. So that’d be one example. Another example, it’s primarily on the on the statutory sort of regulatory specificity side. It really is only about NEPA, and it ignores all the other statutes that also have their own judicial review cycles and the like. So that’s sort of the second critique. But the third critique is that the bill doesn’t there’s no default. It’s there’s no big default in it, even on the timeline. It’s an average of two years. Katie and I have been living working with the regulatory community for a long time, and they are the best in the world, okay? They’re overworked. They can’t do enough. That’s the problem. They don’t have enough time to do all of this. And the challenge is if you give a regulator two years to decide something and it’s an average, well, then they’ll take the average. Okay. And so everything will get pushed back to two years, to three years, to four years to five years. It’ll average out to three years. And then maybe we’ve made incremental progress on what got approved. Okay. There’s other projects that fail along the way that those don’t get counted against the average of the time to approval. Right. And so, by the way, a significantly greater number of projects never make it because of delay than ever make it because of approval. And we don’t count that as lost. To Katie’s point about the inability of projects to get just their connection approvals from the market operator. So so again, very well intentioned, but but like wildly short of the mark from both a green perspective and from an infrastructure national security perspective, we can do better by being bigger. And that’s what we should do.
Bill Loveless [00:28:41] Yeah, And by the way, that list of 25 I importance energy infrastructure projects doesn’t cover quite a wide span of of activities. Everything from critical minerals, nuclear, hydrogen, electric transmission, renewables, carbon capture and fossil fuels. And it’s the lot of fossil fuels, which is what drew flak from the environmental community for its inclusion in the measure.
Jim Connaughton [00:29:05] Yeah, by the way, that’s an important point, Bill, because there’s a bit of a mismatch. So the flak was about accelerating the fossil fuel piece, right? That’s where the flak was. The conversation we’re having is about going green. Okay. And automatic permitting and basically, you know, automatic judicial approval. Right. Bypassing, bypassing, you know, endless time in the courts. Now, on fossil, you know, we need more fossil in America today for national security reasons, for pricing reasons and other things. But the way we deal with that is sure, figure out how to streamline the good fossil projects that we need today. All right. And our report’s not calling for automatic permitting of those, but streamlining there is a good idea that can build a lot of support, and we need it for national security reasons. But if we had automatic approve it, approval of everything else, it’ll eclipse all that fossil investment. So. So the best way to slow down the investment in fossil is to accelerate the investment in green. And so we should be going to the other side of this debate rather than picking around the edges of fossil. We should go the other side. I do want to note, though, if we want a hydrogen future, which everyone’s talking about importantly. Well, one of the most important and best ways to make hydrogen is with natural gas. And so we shouldn’t be against natural gas. We should be against the emissions from natural gas. Natural gas could be a really important tool in an emissions free future if we do it right. So we also should be thoughtful about kneejerk opposition to fuels when what we’re really about the eye on the prize here is emissions reduction to zero and national security of the highest amount.
Katie McGinty [00:30:40] And I think just in terms of the numbers here, when at some level we all know this, we celebrate it. But just in the last decade, you know, we’ve seen a 90% reduction in the hardware costs of solar. We’ve seen in the last decade a 50% reduction in the hardware costs of wind. What’s tripping us up is not the hard costs, it’s the soft costs. And what we’re talking about is taking big old clipping share. Earth to the soft costs so that those attractive economics of solar and wind can win out, as they should, because of just the pure price points that we’re looking at. If the soft costs weren’t destroying those positive economics.
Jim Connaughton [00:31:31] Yeah. And if I could add one more point to that. I just saw a report last week. Somebody has been collecting data of projects lost foregone. 360. Big wind and solar projects never made it. They could have made it 360. And carbon is a issue. Right. So if you abate the ton today instead of ten years from now, that’s ten more tons abated cumulatively. So so getting the carbon out faster as if there’s a huge dividend. The other thing, the report that Katie and I worked on with a bunch of other colleagues, it was quite bipartisan and quite a big group of important people. The other point to underline was that that with this delay comes added cost. So a project that makes it for every year, it’s delayed, it costs about 20% more. You delay it five years, the project is twice as expensive. That means you could have done two projects for the same cost. That drives up bills for consumers and then plays into the hands of the folks, you know, raise concerns about costs. Well, if you go faster, if you go to automatic approvals, the cost of these projects would drop. The pass through cost, the consumer would go down. And so the cost of capital from the investment community would go down. We’d be paying less, you know, to get the money to build the projects. So this also has a huge, you know, ultimately, you know, in the hundreds, maybe possibly in the trillions of dollars of compounding benefits and certainly the billions of tons of and ultimately gigatons of carbon abatement benefits with speed.
Katie McGinty [00:33:03] And, you know, this idea of automatic approval can maybe sound scary to some folks that there would be something slipshod that happens here. Now, let’s leave aside the argument of what’s happening to the environment. Rome is burning, folks. You know, while we’re not taking these steps, but just to make this a little less scary, this is actually nothing new. So hearkening back to the days when I was privileged to serve as secretary of environmental Protection in Pennsylvania, there is something called a permit buy rule, where when something is decidedly better for the environment, there is a fast lane so that that project can get done. I remember clearly when we were upping the game in terms of drinking water and clean water protections that we had some incredibly old leaking and polluting water infrastructure. Well, when we were taking the steps to rip out that old water infrastructure and in its place to have new non leaking efficient water infrastructure that guarded against contamination and that preserved water that was able to proceed in a permit by rule because decidedly you don’t want the environment suffers if that project gets delayed. So what Jim and I are saying is really nothing new and hopefully therefore less scary. And I hope that people can bring to it the just the perspective. How does the environment, when the environment does it, when with red tape and delays of projects that are aimed at decarbonizing our energy system?
Bill Loveless [00:34:55] Right. You know, over the years, Congress has tried to facilitate the development of new transmission in the United States. A recall under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Energy Department was authorized to study grid constraints and declare national interest electric transmission corridors. And along those designated routes, the law designated FERC as the Backstop Siting authority if a state didn’t approve permits for a line. But the court struck down two broad characters corridors that duly designated in the mid-Atlantic in the Southwest region, siding with environmental and historic preservation groups and state and local agencies. Do we, in fact, have attempted to site transmission since then? As far as I know. What what would mansion’s bill? What would your the report that you coauthored have done to address this situation?
Jim Connaughton [00:35:50] It’s a tragedy, actually. You know, the effort was made. The issue was joined now 20 years ago on the need for these long corridors which will enable every kind of energy to attach to the grid and distribute clean electrons to everybody. But because of this process, as we’ve described, everyone’s got a shot at their piece of delay and they take it. And so. That’s a tragedy. Because when I think of the implementation of 20 years of of the of innovation and clean that could have occurred and didn’t because of an inadequate bill back in the 2000 that was we tried in the Bush administration and we didn’t get far enough. And because of the court cases and by the way, and the heroic efforts of the Obama administration to deal with this on a regulatory level, at a regulatory level, it was heroic by the administration what they tried to do, and Trump tried as well, all failed. And so this is where we have to act as a nation and say we need we need to legislate the outcome. And we just have to step up to no different than doing the hydropower system in the West, no different than doing rural electrification, no different than doing the interstate highway system. Okay. You know, that’s what Congress is for. That’s what the interstate Commerce Clause is for in our Constitution. And you just have to legislate these corridors. Okay, because everybody’s got a concern. I understand and deeply sympathetic to it. But there’s some moments of national need where we have to have national decision overruling overruling these concerns. And and and if we care about these outcomes as much as we do on climate change, decarbonization, an air pollution abatement, a national security through energy security, if we care about it, which I think we do, then we need that kind of collective will to understand that the net benefit is gigantic compared to the the small consequences that can be mitigated along the way.
Bill Loveless [00:37:40] Yeah, you know, but Katie, the Manchin bill would have allowed the government to take over the approval process, as I understand it, by by unilaterally granting a construction permit for a transmission line that the energy secretary is determined to be in the national interest, regardless of any state opposition. That provision attracted some strong pushback from some state officials, some state regulators.
Katie McGinty [00:38:03] Yeah, well, we’ve as I said, we’ve seen that now before. And as Jim just articulated, I do understand that. I understand when you are responsive to just those people who are right immediately in your backyard, that that is where your primary area of focus is. And frankly, it’s part of the reason why we have to have national structures that enable us nationally to lead on those core and overarching priorities that are so important on a strategic and, frankly, existential issue like we’re dealing with here with respect to climate change. Maybe it would help if we looked at some other examples. I think Europe is rightly regarded as a positive force for climate action. And to me, it’s instructive to see that accompanying the major new moves that Europe is taking to decarbonize and in fact to become the very first major political jurisdiction to commit itself to net zero. They have a company that effort with a permitting reform initiative that does two things. That, first of all, as Jim says, it pre identifies area where this critical infrastructure needs to be built and pre-approve those areas and then set a one year deadline for the other processes needed to enable then the building and construction of that renewable energy or decarbonizing infrastructure. So there are examples out there, other jurisdictions that are clearly positive on tackling climate or understanding that this kind of innovation is needed to enable the progress to be achieved.
Bill Loveless [00:39:59] Yeah, and if you could pull out your old state regulator hat, Katie, and put it on for a moment, I mean, would you be comfortable with that with those sorts of provisions?
Katie McGinty [00:40:08] I think this is where, again, that pre-approval process Jim mentioned some of the work of the Obama administration, which frankly was state of the art, where there was an exacting process to understand where, for example, there might be threatened and endangered species, understand where we might have fragile habitats, and to identify and protect all of that right up front. We have wonderful organizations like the Nature Conservancy, for example, that has stepped up and built an incredibly detailed database, similarly outlining where we can host this kind of infrastructure without injurious impact on particular landscapes or particular species or resources. So we can do it. We can we have the science, the technology, the data. We have great organizations that have stepped up. So we need that transparency, that thoroughness of process. We can do it on the front end and. Then enable good projects to proceed.
Jim Connaughton [00:41:13] And build a point I would underline here. This is for the unique case of these long linear projects that cross states, as Katie and I have emphasized. The rest of it is largely actually in the hands of the states. So we can have federal legislation that that gives the states permission to do automatic approvals under the Clean Air Act and the clean water and other things. So the federal governor needs to give the states permission, but the states have their own basket of permitting processes that require the same treatment. And so I’m a federalist. There’s going to be a lot every governor’s and their state legislature and their regulators are going to have to decide collectively, do they want an automatic process for the stuff that happens inside the state or not? And how do they categorize it? Now, I think we know now we have experience on what makes a good solar project. We have experience what makes a good wind project. We have experience, what makes a good project to put power on a dam, a small dam that doesn’t have any power, that where you could actually enhance the environmental outcome of the dam operations. So we actually have experience with all of that. So we should be talking about how to scale it, how to how to multiply it, how to replicate it through these streamlining processes and go from one, you know, again to 100 to 1000 to 10,000. That’s what we should be asking. But the states are going to have full control of that part of the conversation. In our report, we suggested if you want the benefit of federal funding and if you want the benefit of participating in any federal regulatory system, then you should have conforming approaches. But the states still, they’re in control. They have to decide that for themselves. You know, you can’t the federal government can’t control what’s happening inside the state, but the states should want to do this. I mean, that’s our thesis, right? Katy? Are thesis is this is something we want to do. Can we open our eyes and think about how big the opportunity is to seize?
Bill Loveless [00:43:02] But it’s not just the state, too, right? It’s local jurisdictions. I recall a recent story in the New York Times by a independent journalist named Gabriel Papillon tells a story of opposition to solar farms in rural areas of Virginia, where conservationists and farmland advocates have argued that a solar goldrush is displacing valuable forests and farms where panels could instead be going on already developed or degraded land. And it’s the sort of siting issue that’s left not to the federal or state governments, rather to local governments in planning and zoning boards, to those thinking about permitting reforms. Take it to that level.
Jim Connaughton [00:43:39] Well, they need to. And, you know, there’s a recent report called Hawkeye State Headwinds in Iowa, where if you look at Iowa’s state set goal for renewable deployment, this report underscores how that’s actually going to be impossible in Iowa because of these local zone ordinances. So, I mean, our point is we need to all step back and ask ourselves what’s the outcome we’re trying to achieve and therefore, what’s the pathway to get there? And then the states, the governors will have to work with the localities to achieve it. This is big, this is hard. This is doable. We’ve done it before. We’ve done it with railroads. You know, we’ve done it with the interstate highways I mentioned. So so we know how to do it. We know we can do it. Let me give you a couple other examples that are almost, you know, amusing. If they weren’t sad, you know, if a foreign country wants to invest in America, let’s including China. There’s now a legislative process that says X kinds of investments don’t have to go through national security review. So the Congress actually laid down to make very clear we only need regulatory review for a small category of foreign investments in America where before it was quite amorphous. And why? Because all this foreign investment was being hung up. If people want to invest in America and we weren’t letting them, that was silly. At the same time, we care about national security. So they created a very small set of categories for stuff that’s really important. And then that goes through what’s called Syphilis Review Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. Now, as important as that National Security Review is, that’s for national security rights just to protect us. You know, those decisions are made in 120 days, 120 days and no judicial review. Okay. So if China wants to invest in America, it goes in and the final review goes all the way to the president in 120 days, and that’s legislated now. Investment by foreigners in American businesses, is that important? Certainly decarbonizing our infrastructure and our energy, you know, should be regarded as that important and have the same treatment. If we could all approach this with that mindset, I think we can find a lot of common ground.
Bill Loveless [00:45:42] Yeah, it’s a conversation that’s important. And when we talk about the need for understanding it not only broadly and not only on the federal level, but also at the state level, and boy, those old planning and zoning boards, I covered them many years ago. They’re important too. It seems as though significant headway could be made on this topic. Katie McGinty, Jim Cunnington, thanks for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange. Thanks for this conversation and helping us to understand that much. Better the importance of this issue.
Katie McGinty [00:46:12] Hey, Bill, thanks for spotlighting the issue and we hope. Let’s get going.
Jim Connaughton [00:46:17] Thanks so much, Bill. Great. Great to be on with you again. And thanks for all the hard work that you and Columbia do to bring these issues out in front of people.
Bill Loveless [00:46:24] Thank you. Thank you again, Katie McGinty and Jim Connaughton. And thank you for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by Jason Bourne of any Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Erin Hartig, Stephen Lacy and Cecily Macer Martinez from Post-Script Media. Additional support from Daniel Prop, Natalie Volk and Kyu Lee Gregory Veal. Frank is our sound engineer. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energy Policy that Columbia dot edu or follow us on social media at Columbia View Energy. And if you like what you heard, consider giving us a rating on Apple Podcasts. It helps the show reach more listeners like yourself. We’ll see you next week.
We need more energy infrastructure.
But energy permitting regulations — primarily established through the National Environmental Policy Act — are not matching the pace of the transition needed if we’re to meet our net-zero goals.
Sen. Joe Manchin has been trying to pass permitting reform for more than 20 months, and his most recent proposal catapulted the issue into the national spotlight. Manchin’s bill aims to reform environmental review and permitting processes. Most notably, it would reduce the time it takes to get an energy project approved.
The bill faces opposition from both the right and the left. Some Democrats have criticized the bill as a sop to big oil. And some conservatives argue that it lacks clear and meaningful implementation requirements.
Since Manchin couldn’t muster enough support for the proposal, it was ultimately pulled.
Without permitting reform, the U.S. will struggle to build new energy projects, putting climate targets and energy security at risk. What will it take to pass bi-partisian legislation? And how can regulatory review balance environmental protection and infrastructure development?
This week host Bill Loveless interviews Katie McGinty and Jim Connaughton.
Katie is the vice president and chief sustainability and external relations officer for Johnson Controls. She was the first woman to serve as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and as deputy assistant to President Clinton.
Jim Connaughton is the chairperson of Nautilus Data Technologies. He served as the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality for the George W. Bush administration as well as the director of the White House Office of Environmental Policy. He is a member of the advisory committee for Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
Last year, Katie and Jim co-authored a report for the Aspen Institute titled “Building Cleaner, Faster.” It concluded that environmental review and permitting reform were necessary to decarbonize the economy.
Bill talked with Katie and Jim about permitting reform, Sen. Manchin’s proposed bill, and why new legislation is so important for building new energy infrastructure.
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