Renewable Energy? Where’s Your Permit?

Biden’s plans for a green transition are sure to face a wall of local opposition, litigation and obstruction.

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The U.S. has one of the developed world’s most costly, time-consuming and unpredictable systems for authorizing big infrastructure projects. In the Inflation Reduction Act, Sens. Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer agreed to address this problem by streamlining federal permits for energy infrastructure in September. But if the drafts circulating on Capitol Hill are any indication, it’ll be too little too late to lower energy prices or save President Biden’s promise of clean electricity by 2035.

One idea is to codify in law President Trump’s One Federal Decision policy, which among other things sought to establish a two-year time limit for permit decisions. It’s a good policy (which I helped implement), but even before Mr. Biden rescinded it, recalcitrant agencies had found a loophole. They’d delay acceptance of the initial permit application, stopping the clock before it could start.

Moreover, the Trump reforms were marginal improvements to a flawed system that only Congress can fix. Because courts routinely vacate permits over minor omissions in an environmental-impact statement, agencies spend years and millions of dollars trying to study every possible alternative and impact. The system gives inordinate influence to small pockets of local opposition by allowing them to sue over trivial omissions and makes it nearly impossible to prioritize projects of national importance.

That includes Mr. Biden’s promise of clean electricity by 2035, which would require a staggering amount of permitting for new infrastructure: scores of nuclear plants, hundreds or even thousands of utility-scale solar plants, tens of thousands of windmills, hundreds of thousands of transmission-line-miles, according to estimates by industry experts such as the Electric Power Research Institute.

Mr. Biden will be lucky to get a small fraction of that permitted. Even with the Inflation Reduction Act’s addition of nearly $1 billion to hire more permitting staff, agencies will be overwhelmed by the tsunami of new permit applications headed their way. Congress needs to enact sweeping reforms:

• Make the timing predictable. Agency officials drag their feet every step of the way, leaving developers in limbo and driving up projects’ costs. If developers had more control over project timetables, it’d save a lot of capital and time. Instead of allowing only officials to assemble environmental documents, developers should be allowed to prepare the materials for agency certification. If agencies take too long issuing a permit or denial, developers should be given provisional permits to start construction subject to monitoring and mitigation.

Read the full article at The Wall Street Journal.