Sen. Joe Manchin III warns of strange bedfellows in permitting reform fight, but finds his own

Sen. Joe Manchin III warns of strange bedfellows in permitting reform fight, but finds his own

Sen. Joe Manchin III’s controversial bill that would make it easier to build new power plants, dams, pipelines, transmission lines, wind turbines and solar farms could get a vote in the Senate as early as Tuesday afternoon.

Groups including the Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace USA are livid, warning that the West Virginia Democrat’s legislation would be a boon for the fossil fuel industry. The bill would set a two-year time limit for environmental reviews for major energy projects, establish a 150-day limit for filing court challenges and mandate that the president create a rolling list of 25 energy projects of “strategic national importance” for quicker review — five of which must be fossil fuel projects.

Green groups are especially irritated that part of the bill would fast track the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a nearly complete 300-mile pipeline that would carry natural gas from Manchin’s home state to southern Virginia.

Some House progressives, who oppose the bill, and some Senate Republicans, who broadly support permitting reform, are outraged that Manchin agreed to advance the Democrats’ domestic-spending package — the Inflation Reduction Act — in exchange for the promise of a vote on his long-desired measure. Manchin blamed “revenge politics” for opposition to his bill, saying he has never seen “stranger bedfellows than Bernie Sanders and the extreme liberal left siding up with the Republican leadership.”

But in constructing what his critics call a “dirty deal,” Manchin has ended up with his own strange bedfellows.

Some in the renewable energy industry support the coal-state senator’s bill and want a more expedited review process, citing the 4 ½-year average permitting process for energy projects and an even longer process for transmission lines.

“We must put politics aside and come together to pass common-sense and overdue permitting reforms,” Heather Zichal, chief executive of the American Clean Power Assn., a trade group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last week. “As Congress considers potential reforms to the permitting system, we can’t let this unprecedented opportunity pass us by. It’s time to finish the job and follow through on the promise of this historic legislation.”

The American Council on Renewable Energy, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy, also backs the bill, the group’s president said in a statement last week. The Biden administration supports the deal too, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Friday. The Department of Energy is “very excited” about the “potential for streamlined permitting on clean energy projects,” she added.

Evidence suggests that permitting reform could speed up some clean energy projects. Projects that could provide 18,581 megawatts of offshore wind power — enough for nearly 15 million homes — are tied up in the permitting process, according to a 2022 Department of Energy report. Getting federal permits for transmission lines takes an average of five to 10 years, and the process can change dramatically when a new president takes office, said Rob Gramlich, founder and president of Grid Strategies LLC, a clean energy consulting firm.

Land disputes and permitting for transmission lines were among the largest barriers to two massive wind energy projects that sought to bring power from the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast.

The federal approval process for transmission lines is often the major holdup preventing new renewable energy projects from being completed in a timely manner, Gramlich, who supports Manchin’s bill, told The Times.

“Any transmission lines in the [West] will almost certainly cross some federally-managed land, which means you need a permit from a federal agency, and that process will take multiple years and many hundreds of pages and deep applications,” Gramlich said.

The clean power industry’s support for Manchin’s reforms is far from unanimous. Even the agency behind one of California’s most consequential renewable energy projects — one that has been tied up in permitting issues for years — isn’t ready to fully endorse the reforms.

Twenty-five miles off the coast of Humboldt County, Calif. is the Humboldt Wind Energy Area, one of the country’s most ideal spots to harvest wind energy. Turbines in the 207-square-mile area have the potential to generate nearly 1.6 gigawatts, enough energy to power well over 1 million homes.

But Humboldt County is a relatively rural area with a population of only 140,000 people and a power station that cannot process that amount of electricity. A major holdup for using the full potential of the proposed wind project are transmission lines that would bring power south to more populated communities near the Bay Area.

“Anything more than 150 megawatts really can’t be exported out of our area,” said Matthew Marshall, executive director of the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, a joint-power agency that finds renewable energy alternatives for local governments in Humboldt County. “To go beyond that will require significant upgrades.”

The Redwood Coast Energy Authority hasn’t taken a position on Manchin’s permitting reform. But two years of data just isn’t enough to fully understand the potential environmental impact of a large energy project, Marshall said.

Marshall believes that a good permitting process and a successful project require meaningful dialog with the community. Too often large energy projects are approved after lengthy environmental impact reviews and developers rush to complete the job and leave town without addressing the ongoing concerns of the community, he added.

“Let’s do the amount of work that needs to be done to do it right,” he said, “and there’s not necessarily an arbitrary number of years for that.”

He does, however, think that a shorter permitting process would have its benefits.

“It would be good to figure out ways to keep the timeline tight, because the climate crisis is urgent and we need to move quickly,” Marshall said. “But that doesn’t mean we need to cut corners. As folks say, ‘You can do things good, fast or cheap, but you have to pick two.’”

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