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Columbia Energy Exchange

U.S. Permitting Reform: Striking the Right Balance


Christy Goldfuss

Chief Policy Impact Officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council


Christy Goldfuss [00:00:03] Our environmental review process is far more than just NEPA. NEPA is almost like the hanger that all the other pieces hang off of. If you’re thinking about our historic preservation laws, if you’re thinking about the Endangered Species Act or the Clean Water Act, really the National Environmental Policy Act is the mechanism that allows all those points of data to come into play so that the federal government can see, have a broader picture of what’s going on and then move forward through the permitting process.


Jason Bordoff [00:00:34] If the United States is to meet its climate goals, it will have to build energy infrastructure at an unprecedented rate to get to net zero by 2050. Wind and solar capacity will have to at least quadruple. The size of the transmission grid will have to double, and the electric vehicle fleet will need to grow more than 100 fold, requiring new factories and mines under the existing permitting process. Growth at this pace and scale is nearly impossible. It takes years to secure permits for new plants, transmission lines and mines. That’s why so many in industry policy and civil society increasingly recognize that accelerating the regulatory permitting process is a priority. But doing so may require clean energy advocates and environmentalists to face some difficult tradeoffs. The processes involved have been crucial to protecting communities, land and wildlife in the United States for the past half century. And some worry sweeping permitting reform could risk weakening those protections. What are the implications of the recent proposals for permitting reform? How should clean energy advocates navigate these tradeoffs? And how can policymakers protect American communities and ecosystems as they race to build out clean energy? This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Jason Bordoff. Today on the show. Christy Goldfuss. Christy Christy’s the chief policy impact officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, or Nord CE, a US based environmental advocacy nonprofit. Prior to joining NRDC, she was the senior vice president for energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress. Christy served in multiple senior positions during the Obama administration, first as the deputy director of the National Park Service and then as the managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality or CQ. In that role, she helped draft and implement key environmental policies, including the Obama administration’s climate action plan. Christy joined me to talk about the recent permitting reform proposals, as well as how she views the balance between expanding clean energy and protecting communities and ecosystems. We also discussed public lands, critical minerals and the future of hydrogen. I hope you enjoy our conversation, Christy told us. Welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange. It’s great to see you again and thanks for taking time to be with us.


Christy Goldfuss [00:03:04] So good to see you. Thanks for having me again.


Jason Bordoff [00:03:08] Christy You and I work together at the Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration. Tell us a little bit about what CQ does in terms of energy and climate. And then walk us through the work you’re doing now at NRDC.


Christy Goldfuss [00:03:21] So the Council on Environmental Quality really varies, as you know, Justin, depending on the president and depending on the president’s agenda. But when it’s working best is when you have a West Wing and a president that’s very focused on implementing our environmental laws in a way to really improve people’s lives. So when I was at C. Q during the Obama administration, I was there for the final two years. I had just been at the National Park Service working on the centennial with director John Jarvis at the time coming into C. Q Then it was right before the Paris Agreement. We were in the middle of trying to drive a large across government climate agenda, but c whose role was really to focus on the resilience and adaptation part of that agenda, conservation. And also it was in a smaller part of the portfolio than it is now, but really engaging on the environmental justice aspects of that overall climate agenda. So all the inklings and beginnings of the full agenda that we now see really taking hold in the Biden administration. I look back on everything that you did and everything that we had the honor to work on with President Obama, and you can see sort of elements of that that are now have just taken much deeper root within the federal government.


Jason Bordoff [00:04:47] And one of the things that people may not know about CQ is there’s a lot of lawyers there. And part of the reason for that is because CQ is responsible for implementing NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, which involves all of the environmental reviews that need to be done for major federal projects. I just finished reading this fascinating book. I recommend it to you and our listeners. Douglas Brinkley, the great American historian, has done a history of the American environmental movement through the 40s 50, 6070s, culminating in things like NEPA as great achievements to do environmental reviews and make sure before we take major federal actions like building a highway or anything else. We have at least asked the question of what the impact on the environment will be. NEPA is now framed as a problem and it’s what’s going to stand in the way of getting us to a faster energy transition. So I was wondering if you could talk about that and what we do about it.


Christy Goldfuss [00:05:41] Absolutely. When I first started at the Council on Environmental Quality, someone gave me a users guide, sort of a pocket guide to the National Environmental Policy Act. And I remember reading just the very beginning of the statute, which is really simple. This was back in a day that Congress would write sort of these eloquent laws and then had faith that the government would implement them in the way that the government saw best fit. And the statute talks about living in harmony between development and humanity and the environment and how all of these elements can coexist. And really posing this is that idea that it isn’t a tradeoff. We can’t we can’t assume that if we’re going to have a strong economy, then we’re going to have a terrible environment that we have to assume that we need both, and that in order to be a thriving society, we need both. So how that then translates over decades into law, into case law, and how it moved through the government and through the courts got more and more complex over time. And it’s become, I would say, a very easy scapegoat for some who want to say that we just need to go faster and that if we’re really going to meet our economic needs, then this is just a waste of time. And we don’t really need to look at the environmental reviews. It takes too much time looking at community engagement, looking at all the different aspects and thinking about alternatives besides the one that is proposed by the project proponent. It’s just takes too much time. It’s now just a bunch of red tape. However, what that totally misses is that our environmental review process is far more than just NEPA. NEPA is almost. Like the hanger that all the other pieces hang off of. If you’re thinking about our historic preservation laws, if you’re thinking about the Endangered Species Act or the Clean Water Act, really the National Environmental Policy Act is the mechanism that allows all those points of data to come into play so that the federal government can see, have a broader picture of what’s going on and then move forward through the permitting process. So what’s happened over the years is that Congress has intervened at many different points to try and and I’m going to use air quotes for your listeners purposes, streamline this process. But what they’ve really failed to do in each of these points in time is look at the permitting process from soup to nuts. How is it from concept to completion that a project is built and the permitting process we have right now, especially when it comes to energy and roads and bridges, was built for another time. It was built when we were looking at fossil fuel infrastructure. It was built when we were looking at roads and bridges that could exist in a more static environment than what we’re looking at right now with climate change. There’s so much that we need to take into account. So it’s become very easy for people to say NEPA is the problem. NEPA takes too long. We need to go faster. We need deadlines, we need limits on pages of review. And that’s what’s going to fix the problem. But from what I viewed inside the government, that may help spur government action to move a little bit faster, but it doesn’t change the state laws that you then encounter when you’re building a project doesn’t deal with the local opposition that we now see coming up time and time again that’s really getting in the way of these projects. Nor does it face the financing issues that come up along the way. So I am certainly not saying the federal government process is perfect and there’s a lot that we can look at, especially around some large transmission issues. And when we’re looking at really big utility scale projects, I’m not saying this system is perfect, I’m just saying that just pointing to NEPA is really a full solution and isn’t going to fix the problem.


Jason Bordoff [00:09:57] Yeah. I have a couple of several follow up questions about that. But just for people listening, remind them what’s the short explanation of NEPA, what it requires and how that process works?


Christy Goldfuss [00:10:08] Very it’s the look before you leap statute. It’s know the information, look at it, and then make an informed decision. There is nothing about NEPA that requires you to pick the least impactful project. It is not the National Environmental Protection Act. Dana Baer, former C. Q General Counsel, has always reminded me and many of her students about this it’s the National Environmental Policy Act. So look, before you leave, know the information and make an informed decision.


Jason Bordoff [00:10:42] But it is the case that some of those environmental reviews run hundreds of pages, take years to do, even categorical exclusions, which many projects actually fall under where people say this isn’t something we need to look at. Even that can take years for an agency to make a decision on. So, yes. Do you do you acknowledge there are challenges with the speed at which we need to move with an energy transition and how how NEPA works? And then let’s let’s come to the other things you raised beyond NEPA.


Christy Goldfuss [00:11:08] Yes, I think there are ways from a good government perspective that we’ve made progress over the years in trying to address some of those delays. Certainly when I was sitting at the Park Service, I would see meetings where there would be a particular project and the Bureau of Land Management would have one perspective and the Park Service would have another perspective. They would disagree with each other and then they would go back into their corners and do their deadly jobs and nobody would resolve the situation. So I think there is a lot that can be done through coordination, collaboration across the federal government. There are technology tools that can be put in place. And Congress has been very generous, both in the bipartisan infrastructure law and then also in the Inflation Reduction Act to invest and give the federal government the opportunity to invest in really modernizing the way we do these environmental reviews, because that can help make it so you don’t have each agency taking a different approach. There can be one point of contact for a project proponent. So as they’re working through the different environmental reviews, they’re able to figure out where they stand in the process. There’s a dashboard now for major actions where you can look at what’s your next permit that you need. So there’s there’s a lot that we can do to learn from some activities at the state level, some local permitting regimes that have worked really well that we really need to make sure that we’re lifting up at the federal level so that the process can feel far more. Far more consistent each time you’re coming into it, that you understand what you’re what you need to provide to the government as a project proponent.


Jason Bordoff [00:12:51] Now, as you said a moment ago, there are many points of potential bottleneck. Federal environmental reviews being one. So when you hear the phrase permitting reform or use that phrase yourself, what does it mean to you? What needs to be done?


Christy Goldfuss [00:13:07] Well, we’ve spent a lot of time and in particular post the Inflation Reduction Act, passing, trying to assess and really diagnose where are those bottleneck points. And there are so many. We are at the national at NRDC, really looking at this from different strategies depending on what type of infrastructure we’re talking about here. So I look at what we’re experiencing now in a pretty dramatic fashion in terms of local opposition to the growth of renewables in particular. On the ground, we’re seeing local ordinances that are really standing in the way of moving forward because people have real concerns about what’s happening on the ground as one issue that’s coming up. We have the issue around transmission lines and how are we going to have the transmission necessary so that as we have this clean energy buildout, we have the places to actually plug in and make sure we’re using renewables in the in the best way possible as an issue. I look at just having the right people in the right positions to be able to do this analysis in a way that can be quick and consistent so that project proponents know what they need as a problem and then really engagement with the state agencies that have to do this work as well. How or how are we looking at that issue and making sure that we have the right approach? So I think of it in terms of three prongs. We need to figure out how communities are engaged early and often in the process to get the right projects. We need to look at how conservation can really be part of the buildout in terms of renewables. We’ve already heard from project proponents in the renewable space that they’re really interested in thinking about biodiversity and how they could have elements of compensatory mitigation, as we call it. So ways that they can offset the impacts of their their large projects. And then we need to really value the clean energy portion of this and make sure that that value is reflected in terms of community benefits back to the communities. So I think there is a way that if we look holistically across permitting, that there are places along the entire journey that we can improve the process and we need to get in there right now and aggressively push the changes that Congress has already put into place and continually figure out where are the places that we can improve this process. So starting at a high level, it’s that community engagement, biodiversity and then really pricing the value of these projects so that the communities can see community economic development in a way that allows the process to go faster so there’s less opposition on the back end that I think could allow us to have a shift in how quickly these projects can move.


Jason Bordoff [00:16:23] Yeah, and I think you’ve written about that. You testified in Congress recently about some of those reforms from fund the federal government. Better to do this work, do more community engagement earlier. That was something in a recent task force I co-chaired on the critical minerals strategy for the U.S. We talked a lot about, particularly with regard to tribal and indigenous communities, which are really close to a lot of these resources. But I guess I just want to ask and gently push, even if we do all of those things, it seems to me there’s still a high likelihood that that makes progress but insufficient for the magnitude, scale and speed of clean energy we need to build. And I’m just wondering, you know, I was talking about that Douglas Brinkley book I was reading. And while I was reading it, I was thinking of another book, The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, the great builder of the city. I live in New York. And what you saw was someone who for decades was able to build a lot and really quickly and sometimes with highways that ran through the Bronx and destroyed communities and had environmental impacts and part of the environmental reforms of the early 1970s, it seemed to me, was a different sort of bargain where we accepted delay in our ability to build massive infrastructure projects at the scale we did decades or century ago because we wanted to strike a different balance between environmental protection and community impacts and what kind of infrastructure could could. Be built. And I’m just wondering if you think that’s the right way to think about it and if that bargain needs to be rethought and to move as quickly as we need to to meet goals like, you know, net zero by 2050.


Christy Goldfuss [00:18:05] I do not accept that our environmental laws meant we were saying, okay, we are going to delay what we do. I do think you’re right and I will accept that we are going to have to change the system in order to build the way we need to to address climate change. So I think there there are two different things. I think the laws that were put into place 50 plus years ago were put into place for a different time. They were solving for a different problem than what we’re looking at right now. And so if there are ways that we’re going to change this process. One of the more interesting approaches that gets up the scale of the problem in the deal that came out of the debt ceiling negotiations a couple of months ago, or maybe that was only six weeks ago. I mean, it’s all relative these days was an approach to programmatic reviews. So knowing we know where the wind blows, we know where the sun shines. Are there ways that we can do large environmental review of areas at a pretty high level, but bring it down so that it can be useful to industry and then you can have more targeted reviews once a project is in place in that area that has been shown to reduce the time frame for specific projects by years. Could we look at the entire federal state? A third of the country is in some form of federal lands, whether it’s Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Park Service, whatever, whatever the case may be. Is there a much more aggressive clean energy target that we could have for those lands and a way that we could use those programmatic reviews? We saw real small steps in this area around the desert renewable energy plan that the Obama administration did. There’s a lot of lessons learned from how we did that. But it’s really this smart from the start approach, recognizing what our goal is. We need to build X by such timeframe in order to get on path to address climate change and then knowing how much land we need to do that in to give big shout out to the Nature Conservancy. They have a whole analysis of looking at I think they call it the power of place, how many acres we’re going to need for the buildout across this country. And there are questions about how you do that, where you do that and how long it takes us to get there. But I think we’re getting far smarter about the amount of land it’s going to take. We know from our history that if we just rush all of this through, there’s going to be an extreme backlash and it’s going to slow things down because people will oppose the projects and then we’ll end up back in court. So I think there are methods there are policies on the table right now that can help us go faster. Will they be enough? I don’t know. We need to get in there and really start using them. One of the flaws of the federal government is they get new authorities and it takes them forever to use it. So the part about our laws of 50 years ago really being a sort of social contract saying, okay, we’re going to go slower in order to both have a clean environment and have infrastructure that I don’t see. I think it was a reaction to the really negative consequences of going too fast and saying those negative consequences are too grave for us to continue on this path.


Jason Bordoff [00:21:45] And do you think to move at the at the speed we need to that, you know, an honest conversation about that needs to acknowledge there need to be some tradeoffs, you know, all the numbers right to get to target like that zero 2050 new when capacity additions of something like 46GW per year. Last year we did eight and a half, three times as much solar per year as we did last year. And you’re taking the largest wind project, the largest solar project that exists in the U.S. and building one of those every week or two between now and 2030. So just to give listeners a sense of the scale we’re talking about and these projects and we haven’t even talked about critical minerals, mining and refining and processing and what that might look like to meet the need for solar and batteries and maybe do it without China as part of the supply chain one day. Those projects have impacts on communities, on on the environment. Does it do we get to a point where you need to acknowledge maybe if there’s a concern about a rare flower or a particular species, that in the end climate is existential and some trade offs will need to. Be made or is that a false choice?


Christy Goldfuss [00:22:53] There are going to be tradeoffs. There are no there’s no free lunch here when it comes to energy. Energy has impacts in the way that we develop. I don’t want to be Pollyannish about what we have to do here. But if we only look at the tradeoffs rather than looking at the benefits and we don’t look at if you look at biodiversity specifically, we have a massive biodiversity crisis. A huge part of that is climate. Another huge part of that is about our massive growth and doing it in a way that is not recognizing the impacts to species. That’s going to have a huge impact on humans. Those species, they end up being part of our food system. They end up being part of how we filter water. We’re going to have massive water scarcity as a result of climate. So yes, it is complex and we need to weigh the impacts of our build out. But if we don’t do that in a way that’s smart, then we’re just going to continue this spiral and that’s going to have massive impacts for humans. So I think there is it’s too simple to just say we need to go faster and that’s going to solve our problem because as you just mentioned, there are so many hang ups, too, going faster. Critical minerals, local communities, state laws, investment, the human capital of even just building these projects that I think it is to just say that our review process is what’s holding this up is not being honest about what we need to do. And if we go too fast, the consequences of that are real, are real for humans, especially in this point in time. Looking at how climate is changing the world in which we live.


Jason Bordoff [00:24:37] So tell us what you think should be done when if we have another round of permitting reform attention on Capitol Hill. You’ve talked about the benefits of what is broadly what you broadly called and others have smart from the start. What does that mean? What what what should the reforms look like that we need to meet the goals we’re talking about?


Christy Goldfuss [00:24:57] Well, I think I will go back to the programmatic reviews we know and have so much more information in the United States now about the entire 48 states plus Alaska, about the resources that we have, about where where we have the greatest potential, where we really would be able to have the least amount of conflict. There are already corridors that have been disturbed as a result of highways or other energy corridors that we can use. So I think there’s ways to look at here in the United States, obviously not talking globally, but look at the entire patchwork of the country and figure out what is going to be our best path forward to reaching these goals. What is how much private land are we talking about here? What is the role of the federal state? How much can be built in a way that is sensitive to communities and species on the federal and federal state? Is there a way, given the role of those lands, that they can shoulder more of the burden than the private lands in the beginning? So I think there are still really big questions that can be asked and something that we saw in the Biden administration’s framework that came out right before the debt negotiations was a approach that looked at conservation and mitigation as part of these project buildout. Can we invest in wetlands? Can we figure out what are ways to conserve acres at the point that in the same area where we would be disturbing them as a result of the projects? What is the role? We talk about community engagement a lot, but the federal government isn’t really good at that. We’ve now heard from renewable companies who have been trying to do this on their own for years now. They’re not really good at that. So what is the option? What are the options and the policy approaches that can be taken to really put a system around community engagement that is that is meaningful? So this these are the reforms and these are the exciting conversations that I think the Inflation Reduction Act has pushed us and really pushed the environmental movement to have. This is a giant shift. I work at a 50 plus year old organization. The Natural Resources Defense Council was all about stopping bad infrastructure and stopping bad projects, and we are now looking at our role in the movement is very different. Figuring out what is a project look like that we could support. Is there a way that we could even consider. Establishing criteria up front. So that it would be clear that we wouldn’t oppose a project if it met these certain criteria upfront. So I think we’re looking at a pretty massive shift in how a large part of the environmental community is looking at this. And I think Congress will be the same. And we just need to really dig in to what what are the goals that we have here. We know how much we need to build based on the climate goals, but then what does that mean from a policy perspective? And honestly, what does it mean on the ground? How do we how do we start to get this stuff built?


Jason Bordoff [00:28:27] It is a big shift. And I appreciate the shoutout you gave for the Nature Conservancy, where I’m a trustee here in New York and a constructive role. But but you see that evolution with organizations like that talking these issues through some some of the proposals on Capitol Hill now draw on some ideas that came out of a report two of your predecessors did, Katie McGinty and Jim Connaughton. And you’ve seen some of the ideas for immediate approval in areas that were already developed for other kinds of energy projects. In other cases, accelerated approval, accelerated adjudications, and putting timelines potentially on adjudication. Can you talk about your reaction to some of the ideas that now are finding their way into proposals by some members of Congress?


Christy Goldfuss [00:29:12] The timeline question is interesting because it has been part of the regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act for a long time. So the timelines of what happens when the federal government misses timelines, that’s where we saw a lot of changes around the debt deal, where you had some members of Congress wanting the federal government to pay a fine every day that they missed a particular deadline. I kept asking myself, where would that money even go? So I, I think there is this desire to kind of require things. And most civil servants, whether you’re a political or a career staffer, you want to follow the law. That is your job. So certainly people want to meet deadlines. But if you don’t have the capacity to meet the deadlines, it’s it’s a a interesting thing that they were trying to really kind of drive home, that there were going to be consequences if you missed the deadlines. I have no problem with deadlines as long as there is flexibility for unique situations or variations. And I think where they landed in the negotiations around the debt deal was smart because there is flexibility to go to a court and with the project proponents get a more detailed timeline. I think the thing that we’re hearing from project proponents time and time again is they want certainty. They want to know what to expect, how how long it’s going to take them. We heard from lots of renewable developers that it wasn’t necessarily they needed the same time line for every project, but they needed certainty. They wanted to know for their big projects when could they expect to see the environmental impact statement or environmental assessment, depending on what the project is? And that seems fair. And given that we now have a federal permitting council that is really up and running and funded, they can have that responsibility and force that across the government to get to those certain timelines. So I think that that can be worked with and the government can implement those in a way to provide the certainty that the developers are looking for without completely smashing community engagement and without really damaging the amount of information that is collected around environmental impact. In terms of judicial review. That is one of the areas that they did not make big changes to in this most recent around round of the debt deal. I think Congress is still looking at judicial review and how long you should be able to challenge a project. So we’ll see how that plays out. I mean, I think we are looking at a debate on this issue that is not going to go away any time soon. We are going to be talking about how to get these things built and how to reach the numbers we know we need to reach for at least the next decade. So as we continue to look at how to get more detail in the policy around community engagement and conservation, we know that that piece around judicial review will continue to be debated. The other piece of this is transmission and really how are we going to get transmission built quickly? And that’s that’s.


Jason Bordoff [00:32:38] Can you do you want to answer that question? And in particular, I’m curious your thoughts about some of the authorities that do we in Ferc have to move faster and do more, but are a bit have been historically a bit reluctant to use?


Christy Goldfuss [00:32:51] Yes, This goes back to this whole point that the federal government has authorities that they end up not using. And how many times does the Congress have to tell them, you know, for real, we really need this? If we have transmission lines that we need for the good of our entire society, you can build those even if they go across state lines. Ferc has been really hesitant to do that. So I think the changes that we are very supportive of and think would have pretty tremendous changes are one, the changes in cost allocations so that say the federal government could shoulder some of the burden on what it costs to build out these really large transmission lines. So the burden is not always on the community. There’s also the, as you were referencing, the eminent eminent domain authority that Ferc already has and could use for huge transmission lines across state lines. And I think that’s where we were disappointed with what came out of the debt deal negotiations, because there’s a two year study on this problem. We already know this problem exists. We don’t need to study it for two years. Ferc already has the authority. You can put rules out there and guidelines and regulations out there that say, okay, we’re only going to do this if it crosses multiple states, if it’s this size of a project. They already have the authority to do that. So studying it just delays what we thought was already incredibly pressing. So putting that two years out from now is just unacceptable. So we are we’re looking closely at that. And what are the options to either speed up that study or is there a particular question beyond the authority they already have and what they we know they need to do that that study could focus on, but really saw that is hampering what needs to happen in terms of transmission buildout.


Jason Bordoff [00:34:50] Now, D.C. is obviously very closely divided, Republican, Democrat, even among Democrats, politicians like Joe Manchin and those further to the left have quite different views about what permitting reform should look like or even what the problem is. So I know I’m pretty sure I know what NRDC’s position on this question will be, but just putting your political hat on, do you think as a matter of politics and political compromise, permitting reform will mean making things a bit faster and easier for all types of energy, clean energy, as well as oil and gas?


Christy Goldfuss [00:35:25] I think it really depends on who’s at the negotiating table. So with the current makeup, yes, we are we are seeing that the changes we would be okay for clean energy are also going to really support some build out of dirty energy as well. But if our goal is to address climate change, this is where that negotiation and whatever that deal is starts to go sour so quickly. Because if we’re just building out more dirty energy than we’re contributing to climate change, we’re locking in more infrastructure, that’s presumably if we’re going to reach any of our climate targets, would become a stranded asset. And how do we how do we limit that? Because this transition is going to have to take place. Even Senator Manchin talks about how we need to get clean energy to a place that economically it would surpass dirty energy. And that’s what they the investments in the Inflation Redux Inflation Reduction Act were all about. So I, I really think this is where whether or not Congress needs to act again becomes an open question in the near term because we do not need more fossil fuel infrastructure now. And the more we invest in it, the more we are standing in the way of this transition taking place at the speed we need it to take place. And so that’s the whole other side of this negotiation and this what is a good deal that politicians have to look at. And frankly, all of us on the outside, whether or not we push for changes, we know those consequences could be too great and not worth it.


Jason Bordoff [00:37:22] The I mentioned briefly before the critical mineral requirements of a transition, you’ve worked not just in an environment and CQ, but deputy director of the Parks Service. You spent a lot of time thinking about public lands in this country and a lot of those resources are on public lands or close to them or close to tribal communities and Native American reservations. How do we how do we get that? Done. How do we do a huge amount of more mining across the United States? And we need refining and processing facilities which would tailings ponds and other things can have their own environmental risks. How do we do that at a large scale? And there are geopolitical reasons why the Biden administration is telling us we need to do more of that, too, because we don’t want to be heavily dependent on China in the same way we are today. How do you do that and and protect the environment and communities in the process?


Christy Goldfuss [00:38:18] In some ways, the critical minerals questions make the renewables siting questions just so simple. There is a history around mining in particular that is really painful for, as you mentioned, Native American communities, for other communities that have been concerned and located close to those mining disasters. I mean, we’ve seen mining disasters happen throughout our history. So that makes it a very sensitive topic and one that is going to require a strategy around critical minerals development for the country that acknowledges that past, acknowledges the concerns that are going to come out around building and really mining at the size scale we need for the buildout. I’ve heard some maybe overly optimistic and you may know this much better than I assessments that there might be some critical minerals that could be replaced by other substances, that there’s approaches to recycling that could allow us to need less mining. In my mind, those strategies should be explored first. Given that that would allow us to avoid some of the really negative consequences that we know can be associated even in the most modern approaches to mining. So I think this is a longer term strategy. I think the issues that are coming up with China make it more present, and one that we know the Biden administration has started to grapple with, but is really going to need to take on more urgency as we look at the geopolitical concerns. Critical minerals. I’m quoting some very smart people, but critical minerals have become sort of the debate around oil in the decades ahead, because really, we need them for everything. We’ll need them for all aspects of our energy future and just even the phones we have in our hands. So it’s going to take a lot of attention to get this right.


Jason Bordoff [00:40:31] Yeah. And we just saw China restrict exports of of to two minerals in particular that are important for things like semiconductors. And as I mentioned, we talked about the McGuinty Connaughton Aspen Institute Task Force. Megan O’Sullivan and I did one just recently on critical minerals. And and I think to your point, really talked about the importance of community engagement and tribal engagement, also about the potential for new battery chemistries or recycling to reduce the need for how many minerals we have. But I think one of the findings in the report was also and everything you said was well said, I would have maybe one suggested added to it, which is to explore those possibilities not first, but in parallel. And because even if those even if those approaches are successful, you might reduce the growth, but it is still going to be very significant growth in demand. You can’t electrify an economy without copper. We’re going to need huge amounts of lithium and all sorts of other nickel and other other minerals, and there’s just no way around the fact that we’re going to need a lot more mining to to bring those things to market. I think that means not just working, doing all that in the U.S., although we probably will need a lot more in the U.S., but also with partners broadly defined in Africa and Latin America, because certainly China and Chinese dollars are at work in those places. And I think it is really difficult to think about how you do that because, as you said, the history of mining and the impacts on local communities is not always a great one. And right now, the average time to permit and develop a new mine is around six years. Globally, we don’t have that kind of time for the targets we’re talking about.


Christy Goldfuss [00:42:16] I accept your amendments. That is right.


Jason Bordoff [00:42:20] When I asked about critical minerals, you talked about the importance, the challenge, but also how difficult it is. Where does that conversation stand, in your view, inside the environmental community? And what what is it going to take to sort of build a national consensus that we need to move much faster to do more mining? And there are environmental consequences to that. We need to minimize them. We need to understand them, but they are not zero.


Christy Goldfuss [00:42:48] I think the environmental community is not really. Wrapping its head around this question. In terms of the larger movement here in the United States, I think there is just a reckoning with the previous conversation we had around permitting and fighting in the build out of Newspolls and how essential that is to addressing climate change. But there is less agreement, less conversation around how the environmental movement becomes in favor of mining. I mean, I remember when I was testifying and the Senator Capito from West Virginia asked me if there was ever a mine that NRDC has supported. And I sort of paused and said, well, that’s not really our role. We are out there supporting mines, we are supporting people, and we’re supporting impacts on the environment and decreasing those. So it is one thing to be in favor of renewable projects that we need to address climate change. It’s going to be another step to get to a place around mining, specifically where the environmental movement is in support and has, I think, unity of perspective about what the criteria around good mining could and should be. So that’s not a not a great answer, but I think still a lot of work to be done there.


Jason Bordoff [00:44:26] I know we’re just a couple of minutes left, but I just wanted to close by sort of asking about a couple of other pieces of the Inflation Reduction Act and technologies they support. A lot of money for green hydrogen projects. And I shouldn’t say green, it’s for hydrogen, but there are, you know, requirements for the emissions associated with the projects and all sorts of questions of implementation for how that is measured. Can you talk about where you are on that question of hydrogen? How big a role can it play? Should it play in the energy transition? And how you see what NRDC is doing in terms of the work of how the Inflation Reduction Act tax credits are implemented?


Christy Goldfuss [00:45:09] NRDC has really been at the forefront of looking at what it means and what it would take for hydrogen to be truly green hydrogen. We’ve worked in coordination and collaboration with other partners to lay out a three pillar approach to the development of hydrogen that really looks at how we make sure that there are renewables, enough renewables associated with it, that the giant electrolyzers that are necessary to create hydrogen would be running off of new additional clean energy. There’s lots of passion around this topic in a way that I think has surprised me, given that we’re talking about a really nascent technology. I think it speaks to the generosity of the tax credit and how much money industry sees out there. And the debate is really come down to how quickly, how quickly can we get to green hydrogen? And if we go too fast or if we put too much requirements on hydrogen, will it mean that we get a lot more blue hydrogen and hydrogen associated with natural gas versus building out clean energy? So I think we see a very good role for hydrogen to play in our transition and that it’s certainly going to be necessary for really high intensity industrial production. But this question of how quickly we do it is so huge because if we don’t get to the point that it’s green hydrogen, that hydrogen is no longer a solution, it’s exacerbating the problem tremendously. So the the policy debate right now in Washington, D.C., is incredibly fraught as we wait for Treasury to put out the guidelines around the tax credit that we expect later this summer in the fall. That will really be the pathway to how this technology gets built. Now, there are lots of ways that the federal government, beyond just the guidance around the tax credits, could help support the build out of green hydrogen. But again, if this is if this is not done in the right way, we see this as being a really big problem versus a solution.


Jason Bordoff [00:47:27] Now, when you say not done in the right way, the two dimensions, I think, at least to that one is green versus you mentioned other color. So a color like blue, which if you were measuring the emissions and you were capturing and removing and storing the CO2, you would view that as in the wrong direction, even if even if one were actually capturing the CO2 for blue hydrogen. Correct. And why is that? Just so we understand.


Christy Goldfuss [00:47:55] Well, I mean, we are not I just think the more that we are perpetuating using fossil fuels, which this would if you’re capturing with carbon capture and sequestration using natural gas, that’s not what we have defined as green. It needs to be renewables that are offsetting the creation of this hydrogen. So that’s from our perspective, not the definition of what green hydrogen is.


Jason Bordoff [00:48:23] And then the other dimension of fast or slow is let’s just build a lot of electrolyzers running off existing renewable electricity on the grid and be renewable. Electricity on the grid can catch up. Maybe that’s what some would argue with, you know, electric cars. Some people say, well, what if your power plant is coal? And people would say, well, let’s just get the electric cars out there and the grid will evolve over time. Or let’s make sure that any new project has new additional renewable capacity, even if that delays the deployment of some of this green hydrogen electrolyzer capability. The is the latter view the kind of what you think is the right approach.


Christy Goldfuss [00:48:57] Yes. Additionality the whole idea that if you’re going to be putting these enormous electrolyzers, which are quite different, then looking at the consumer industry related to electric cars, we’re talking about enormous, huge electrolyzers making sure that they are not just using the existing renewable energy, that there is new renewable energy that’s associated with the build out of those electrolyzers so that they’re using green energy and not just creating enormous demand on the existing grid.


Jason Bordoff [00:49:33] There’s significant funding in the IRA too, for advanced nuclear capability. Can you talk a little bit for yourself and for NRDC? And I want to ask you to speak to the environmental movement, but if you want to more broadly, the how are the views on nuclear energy evolving and shifting as we think about the scale of what’s needed to get to net zero?


Christy Goldfuss [00:49:53] I think there’s a large part of the traditional environmental organizations that see support for the existing nuclear fleet as about as far as people are willing to go. To the extent that there are major breakthroughs in nuclear energy and it’s seen as being safe and an opportunity to get closer to net zero, I think there’s interest. But I will say, at least from NRDC perspective, that’s not where we’re focused on. It’s not one of the technologies that we’re incredibly focused on, and we’re spending more time looking at how can we build out renewables faster? And to the extent that hydrogen is included, it is green. And we’ll continue to watch and see what happens with nuclear as it progresses.


Jason Bordoff [00:50:45] Finally, we my I’m taking my family to Bryce and Zion. So I wanted to ask the deputy director of the National Park Service. We may have a lot of people listening who are headed to national parks this summer. So what what should they know? What’s non-obvious about how to make the best of a visit to our extraordinary national parks?


Christy Goldfuss [00:51:04] Oh, boy. Oh, I guess what I immediately go to and this is where I go back to being an employee of the parks is really checking the conditions and the weather conditions before you go. It is one of the biggest things that the National Park Service deals with. It sees as one of their huge responsibilities. Their social media, in fact, is really driven by what our weather alerts, what our security alerts or other concerns. And that’s real. I mean, there are people who die in the national parks every year. And I know we want to end on a positive note here. So I would just say make sure you’re following all those social media feeds and you’re getting the latest information, especially out West, when weather conditions can change so quickly and that you’re able to have a really, truly safe and magnificent, I would say, life altering for some experience with your family that will be completely, completely unforgettable and that they will take with them for the rest of their lives.


Jason Bordoff [00:52:06] Good advice. Maybe not unrelated to the rest of this conversation. I spent this weekend reading Jeff Goodall’s new book, You know, The Heat Will Kill You First and actually forwarding little bits of bits of it to my family for the warnings he has on excessive heat, which, of course, a huge amount of the country is baking under right now. And the.


Christy Goldfuss [00:52:24] West, yeah.


Jason Bordoff [00:52:25] The temperatures in some of the national parks are are pretty high right now. So important to be careful. Thanks for the advice and thanks for your thanks for your time and thanks for your your service in the past and now. And thanks for being with us today on Columbia Energy Exchange.


Christy Goldfuss [00:52:40] Oh, thanks for having me again, Jason. It’s always such a joy. Have a wonderful summer.


Jason Bordoff [00:52:49] Thank you again, Christy Goldfuss. And thank you for listening to this week’s episode of 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 me, Jason Bordoff and by Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Steven Lacy and Aaron Hardwick from Post Script Media. Additional support from Abe Silverman, David Hill, Lily Lee, Daniel Prop, Natalie Volk and Conley. Roy Campanella engineered the show. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energy Policy, or follow us on social media at Columbia U. Energy. And please, if you feel inclined, give us a rating on Apple Podcasts. It really helps us out. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next week.

To meet net zero 2050 goals, the U.S. needs to quadruple wind and solar capacity, double the size of the grid, and increase the electric vehicle fleet 100-fold.

Under the existing permitting process, growth at this pace and scale is nearly impossible. It takes years to secure permits for new plants, transmission lines, and mines. That’s why accelerating the regulatory permitting process is critical.

But doing so may weaken 50 years worth of protections for communities, land, and wildlife in the United States.

What are the implications of the recent proposals for permitting reform? How should clean energy advocates navigate these tradeoffs? And how can policymakers protect American communities and ecosystems as they rush to build out clean energy?

This week host Jason Bordoff talks with Christy Goldfuss about the recent permitting reform proposals and the balance between expanding clean energy and protecting communities and ecosystems.

Christy is the chief policy impact officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) a U.S.-based environmental advocacy nonprofit. Prior to joining NRDC, she was the senior vice president for energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress. Christy also served in multiple senior positions during the Obama Administration, first as the deputy director of the National Parks Service, and then as the managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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