Comprehensive Permitting Reform is Vital to Unleashing America’s Energy Abundance 

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WASHINGTON—The Biden administration and many environmental activists insist the United States and the rest of the world must transition to non-fossil fuel energy sources by 2035 in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. According to “Unleashing America’s Energy Abundance: Permitting Reform is Vital for Affordable Clean Energy,” a new study by Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) senior fellow Mario Loyola, securing permits for all the projects necessary to enable a clean energy transition by 2035 (or even by 2050, for projects with a longer permitting process) is impossible under current law and given agency workforce constraints. 

Despite being endowed with an abundance of energy resources, the United States is now facing energy scarcity. Several factors have combined to create a perfect storm, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the boom-and-bust cycles of the fossil fuel industry. The main reason for America’s looming energy scarcity, however, is needlessly burdensome regulations, especially permitting red tape, which slows down the process for developing energy infrastructure projects to a crawl. 

Consider the staggering amount of infrastructure required to meet the Biden administration’s goal of a zero-carbon electricity grid by 2035: scores of new nuclear plants, hundreds or thousands of new utility-scale solar plants, tens of thousands of windmills, and hundreds of thousands of miles of transition lines.

“The United States has the world’s most costly, time-consuming, and unpredictable system for authorizing major infrastructure,” said Loyola. “This unnecessary red tape, which slows the permitting process for energy projects—including renewable projects—puts America at a grave competitive disadvantage compared with other major economies, including China.”

This week, Congress plans to vote on legislation negotiated by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) that would loosen permitting requirements. Unfortunately, the Manchin bill only tinkers at the margins of this major national problem and falls far short of what would be required for a clean energy transition by 2035. 

“The permitting bottleneck deprives Americans of affordable energy in a land brimming with energy resources,” said Loyola. “The goal of a clean energy transition is almost certainly beyond reach until the whole permitting system is reformed, including significant amendments to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”

Loyola’s recommendations for key elements of permitting reform include:

  • Make the timing predictable. Giving developers more control over project timetables would save enormous amounts of capital and time. Give developers provisional permits to start construction, subject to monitoring and mitigation, if agencies take too long acting on an application.
  • Create a unified process. Every major infrastructure project requires permits from multiple federal agencies using different, uncoordinated processes. There should be a uniform, centralized process that gives priority to projects of national importance.
  • Reduce litigation risk. Hold agencies to a substantial-compliance standard, so that if permit applications are mostly right, a project can still go forward. Congress should tighten the rules on standing so activists cannot hold up safe infrastructure over minor issues.
  • Establish programmatic and general permits. Major categories of infrastructure projects should be subject to expedited programmatic or general permits, with mitigation and monitoring requirements.

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