Late. Joe Manchin finally released the legislative text of his proposed permitting reforms this week, and what a disappointment. His take-it-or-leave-it proposal includes some marginal improvements that will benefit renewable energy, but it creates new regulatory risks for fossil fuels, which is the opposite of what he promised.
We say this with regret because we had hoped the West Virginia Democrat would have won more in return for his vote to pass his party’s tax hike and climate spending. The U.S. economy needs reforms to break regulatory and legal bottlenecks that delay projects for years, if they ever get built. Mr. Manchin had political influence, but the bill shows he traded his vote cheaply.
The clearest winner, you won’t be surprised to learn, is Mr. Manchin. The bill would give a decisive boost to the Mountain Valley Pipeline by requiring agencies to issue permits and block court review. The pipeline, which seeks to deliver gas from West Virginia to the Southeast, is 95% complete but is tied up in court. Mr. Manchin has made a political case for the pipeline, and it is badly needed.
Alas, there is little else to cheer about. The bill takes a shot at speeding up timelines for project approvals, but not in a way that requires real action.
The president was to designate 25 energy projects of strategic national importance, but only five must be for fossil fuels or biofuels such as ethanol. Federal agencies will be required to attempt to complete environmental assessments of these projects within two years, but nothing compels agencies to meet these deadlines. Projects that the president does not favor may disappear into legislative purgatory.
The bill sets a 150-day statute of limitations for legal challenges to environmental assessments and permits, meant to prevent activists from suing to stop projects under construction. Still, nothing limits the scope of legal challenges and who can bring them. The bill makes no significant changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act that let opponents delay projects for years.
Mr. Manchin also falls short in addressing the issue of states abusing their authority under the Clean Water Act. The bill would give states a year to take action on water permits. But nothing prevents governors from denying permits on false environmental grounds, as some tend to do.
Worse, the bill would expand state discretion to block oil and gas pipelines based on an assessment of a project’s indirect impact on water quality, rather than just discharges to waterways as under current law. States would have a greater veto over energy projects and federal environmental assessments.
The bill’s worst provision would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission new power to override state objections to expanding electric transmission lines. States can now deny permits to interstate transmission lines that would not benefit their citizens. This can sometimes hurt states that need energy to balance their grids.
The bill lets FERC override states and approve transmission lines in the “national interest” if they “enhance the ability of facilities that generate or transmit steady or intermittent energy to connect to the electric grid.” This explicitly links the national interest to “intermittent” renewable energy sources. The provision would let progressive states essentially bill the cost of their renewable energy mandates to states without those mandates. Residents of West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana may be forced to pay for wind energy needed to meet renewable mandates in Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey.
A 2020 Princeton University study estimated the grid could need $2.4 trillion in transmission upgrades to reach the left’s net-zero emissions goal by 2050. Last year’s infrastructure bill provided tens of billions of dollars to the grid. The Manchin bill socializes the rest of the cost.
All of which makes us wonder what Mr. Manchin was thinking. Perhaps he figured Republicans would agree to his bill regardless of the reform details, but he never consulted them. Now he blames Republicans who oppose his bill for playing “revenge politics” and “not looking out for the best interests of the country.”
The truth is that the bill is not good enough, and if it passes, the pressure will be on from Democrats to pass something else for years. We want the Mountain Valley pipeline to continue as much as Mr. Manchin does, but that is not enough to justify a vote to pass this weak reform.
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Appeared in the print edition on September 24, 2022 as ‘Manchin’s Permitting Bust’.