In March, the Biden Administration approved the ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in Alaska known as the Willow Project. Environmentalists are in an uproar, stalling the project through lawsuits that leverage federal requirements for environmental impact statements (EIS). While the Willow Project delays may facilitate legal battles that temporarily hold up a major oil corporation like ConocoPhillips from drilling, these same outdated regulations are also inhibiting smaller start-ups from building clean energy projects, hampering environmentalists’ own climate goals. Environmentalists shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees. Current regulations might allow for short-term legal wins, but the permitting process for new energy projects must be streamlined to combat climate change.
Environmentalists are calling the Willow Project a “carbon bomb”, arguing that the drilling would threaten local wildlife and increase greenhouse gas emissions by up to 287 million metric tons. Since the project’s initial proposal in 2020, environmentalists have been fighting it in the courts, but the Biden administration’s approval has added fuel to the fire. Now, environmental legal groups are attacking the project through federal permitting regulations, claiming the federal government did not adequately account for long-term climate impacts.
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To combat the Willow Project, and other projects that environmental lawyers fear would cause environmental harm, environmentalists rely on the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). NEPA requires that all projects that receive federal funding or occur on federal lands submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to receive a permit. In addition to NEPA, there are a myriad of federal permits that can stop large energy projects from proceeding, including permits from different federal agencies that address specific types of environmental harm, like wildlife destruction or clean air and water concerns.
Despite how innocent many of these permits may appear, they have serious problems. For one, permitting requirements are more likely to be used against clean energy projects than fossil fuel projects and are a major barrier to the deployment of clean energy in the US. In 2021, 42% the of projects that underwent NEPA review at the Department of Energy were clean energy or transmission projects, while only 15% were fossil fuel projects. What’s more, these permits create serious time costs for clean energy projects, taking 4.5 years to complete.
These permit barriers have prompted many, including some environmentalists, to suggest permitting reform. While there is a wide range of proposals, permitting reform must essentially entail updating existing NEPA regulations to streamline clean energy projects. This would include prohibiting courts from handing down injunctions after a project has already submitted at least one environmental impact statement. It also would include setting a 12-month time limit on the review period so projects aren’t stuck in limbo for multiple years. Additionally, lawmakers must grant a categorical exclusion for clean energy projects that excludes them from the review process — an exclusion that already exists for some oil and gas projects on federal lands, but not for clean energy. The categorical exclusion would be particularly beneficial for smaller-scale energy projects, like those in modular nuclear energy, thereby accelerating innovative clean energy projects. These fixes would put clean energy on the same regulatory footing as oil and gas and shorten the long review periods.
Permitting reform has become a national political fight. Supporters of permitting reform argue that these reforms would make it easier to build clean energy. Senator Joe Manchin proposed legislation to reform the law with little success. Now, the Lower Energy Costs Act, proposed by Republicans, would integrate permitting reform with a broader agenda of lowering energy costs. Many environmentalists, however, have opposed attempts to reform the permitting process. Progressive senators opposed Manchin’s legislation, fearing it would promote further fossil fuel development and for many environmental law groups, permitting reform would eliminate a major legal tool necessary for opposing projects they believe are environmentally deleterious. Holding on to these tools, despite their negative impacts, is misguided and will stall clean energy development, preventing the US from meaningfully reducing carbon emissions.
Clean energy companies work tirelessly to build offshore wind, geothermal, and solar plants, but their efforts are met with burdensome bureaucratic red tape. At the end of 2021, there were more than 8,100 clean energy projects awaiting approval, held up by existing permits. Sure, some fossil fuel project (including the Willow Project) delays might be caused by the permitting process, and some concessions may be extracted through the legal process, but thousands of clean energy projects are being halted due to outdated, burdensome regulations.
In addition, permitting reform does not have to negatively impact local communities. These clean energy projects would still be subject to rigorous building standards that protect our environment, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, both of which have already successfully improved our environment by reducing air and water pollution. These rules ensure that new projects will not harm surrounding communities. Additionally, the Endangered Species Act would remain intact under these permitting reforms, protecting the local ecology and ensuring projects are not sited on critical habitats. We can protect our environment and create the clean energy we need to combat climate change effectively.
As the legal battle over the Willow Project delays drones onward, pragmatic environmentalists cannot lose sight of the need for permitting reform. Existing regulations might seem like great fodder for lawsuits against oil and gas projects, but they overwhelmingly harm renewables. Permitting reform must remain a key priority for climate activists across the country to reduce carbon emissions and transition to a clean energy economy.
Elijah Gullett is a writer and commentator for Young Voices. His work focuses on energy, the environment, housing, and building an economy of abundance. Follow him on Twitter @marketurbanists.