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Senate Democrats, with at least one exception, expressed support for steps to expedite federal permitting for energy projects that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer intends to include in a must-pass government funding measure, setting the stage for a fight with progressives in the House.
“This was part of the climate deal,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said Thursday, in a nod to the arrangement between Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Senate Democratic leaders to streamline environmental permitting for energy projects, including pipelines and transmission lines. The deal was in exchange for Manchin’s vote on the landmark tax, health, and climate law, a top Biden administration priority enacted last month.
Schatz, a climate hawk, said he would vote for the permitting measures, which Schumer (D-N.Y.) reiterated Wednesday would be part of the government funding bill lawmakers are likely to release next week when the House returns from recess. The White House on Thursday also said it backs the permitting deal.
The so-called “side-deal” with Manchin has angered House progressives, climate activists, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who said Thursday he wouldn’t vote for the funding bill if it included measures to ease permitting. More than 50 House Democrats, led by Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), are urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-Calif.) to separate the votes on permitting and on the continuing resolution to keep the government running after Sept. 30.
Grijalva derided “jamming divisive policy riders into a must-pass continuing resolution” that risk a government shutdown. “Now is just not the time,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Manchin said he has consistently sought a pragmatic approach to energy. “How do we have an energy policy that works? Permitting was always a part of that,” the West Virginian told reporters Thursday. “Bernie and I respectfully disagree.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a strong proponent of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources in order to reduce emissions, said members are waiting to see the permitting language, and “it will be important to get that right.” But he said most Senate Democrats are open to it, at this point.
The “biggest qualm that people have” is the inclusion of legislative language that would put a specific project—the Mountain Valley Pipeline—on a fast track, Henrich said. “That is the biggest burr in everyone’s saddle right now.”
The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile natural gas pipeline nearing completion in Manchin’s home state that is overbudget and years behind schedule, stands to benefit from a more streamlined permitting process.
Environment and Public Works Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has been involved with the permitting bill negotiations, has said he intends to respect the agreement between Manchin and Schumer.
Renewable Energy Benefits
Many Senate Democrats said they viewed a shorter permitting process as helpful for renewable energy projects, as long as it doesn’t undercut environmental protections.
Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has worked for a decade on crafting tax incentives for renewable energy projects that were included in the climate law, said renewable energy projects would benefit from faster permitting. “We’ll have to see the proposals, and we’ll go from there,” Wyden said.
“As somebody who is about as hawkish on climate as you have around here, I want to hit those targets” on reducing carbon emissions, he added. “That means speeding up solar, wind, and geothermal.”
Heinrich also said it was important to maintain environmental safeguards, “but if we can make things get to an answer faster, that’s something I am certainly open to,” he said.
“It is too hard to build transmission in this country right now. I’ve been working on one power line since 2009,” he said. SouthWestern Power Group’s SunZia transmission project in New Mexico has been in the works for more than a decade.
Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who has been closely involved in the year-long talks with Manchin and others over spending to promote clean energy and tackling the climate crisis, said what matters most was enacting policies that ultimately reduce emissions.
“I have been assured — and I believe that even with the permitting bill, net-net — we are still looking at our goal of achieving this net 40% reduction in carbon emissions,” she said.
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