On April 29, five members of Congress sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that nicely summarizes why the energy infrastructure approval and construction process must go on unimpeded by the coronavirus emergency. “Even in uncertain times, we know that American prosperity and energy security are intrinsically linked, and that is why the sector is critical to our current response and will be a key component of our recovery,” they noted, which is why “a moratorium is both unnecessary and detrimental to the nation’s energy security.”
Many environmental groups and other energy project obstructionists have argued for a halt to the permit review process until the crisis is over, claiming that participation is too difficult given the restrictions currently being imposed. Beyond FERC and its role in approving natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, opponents have also focused on other agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the approval process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The demands for delays also extend to the permitting of non-energy projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska. Some are even pushing to stop ongoing construction work, such as that on the Keystone XL pipeline, asserting that the workers might spread the virus.
Long before coronavirus, the project approval process had become excessively cumbersome and in severe need of reform. For example, the NEPA process for large scale projects averages 4.5 years and in some cases can stretch to a decade or more. The Trump administration has made a priority of streamlining approvals, including significant proposed NEPA reforms.
These efforts are ongoing and have barely begun to yield results. The last thing the nation’s slumping economy needs right now is to move in the wrong direction by tacking on months of additional delays.
Project opponents are most likely wrong that the coronavirus-imposed restrictions deny them full participation in the permit review process or lead to a less than robust final decision. But even if they have a point, the sensible solution is for them to file specific challenges in federal court (something that is routinely done in any event), not to presumptively punish every proposed energy project with additional delays.
The letter explains why these projects are critical to maintaining current jobs while contributing to the post-coronavirus recovery. Regarding the present, the letter asserts that “at a time when millions of Americans are temporarily unemployed, FERC should not add to these staggering unemployment rolls by blocking development that will employ thousands of people, generate new state and local tax revenue, and create billions of dollars in capital expenditures.” Looking further out, the letter emphasizes that with sufficient infrastructure to provide abundant and affordable energy, Americans “will be ready to accelerate the nation’s economy when the world emerges from the crisis.”