President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday signaled readiness to work with fossil fuel industry advocates of both parties in the Senate to pass legislation aimed at streamlining the process of approving new energy infrastructure.
In his most detailed remarks to date on the top energy issue facing Washington policymakers, Biden’s chief climate advisor John Podesta reaffirmed the president’s opposition to the House Republicans’ fossil fuel-focused permitting reform legislation. Podesta also said the White House remains opposed to any bid to tie a deal on permitting reform to legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling, which officials have said must be passed by Congress before summer so the government can continue to pay its bills.
“Permitting reform” is a top priority of the oil and gas industry, but in remarks at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Podesta made clear that the White House sides with clean energy advocates who see it as a key to speeding the clean energy transition, as well.
“If we can’t build some new things in a few backyards, the climate crisis will destroy everyone’s backyards—along with the livelihoods, communities, wildlife and biodiversity we all want to protect,” Podesta said. “I might not be popular among my friends in the environmental movement for saying that—but it’s the reality.”
The permitting issue has divided environmentalists, many of whom fear that local communities could lose their ability to influence the siting of pipelines or polluting facilities. Podesta unveiled a set of principles for new permitting legislation that the White House has developed to address such concerns—including requiring agencies to appoint community engagement officers who work with local citizens to answer questions and assuage fears early in the process.
The principles represent a potential means for resolving a difficult intraparty Democratic dispute; Podesta has tackled many such mediations in his long Washington career. He took the top climate job in the Biden White House early this year, having previously served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and counselor in President Barack Obama’s White House.
“We’re in the midst of a climate crisis—one that demands that we build, build, build clean energy,” Podesta said. “We can do it in a way that protects ecosystems and communities… creates good-paying jobs…makes our nation more competitive…and saves our planet.”
The Biden administration’s greatest climate achievement so far was last year’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which approved an unprecedented $370 billion federal investment in clean energy. But Podesta cited recent Princeton University research showing that 80 percent of the carbon emissions reductions from the IRA will require a major expansion of the nation’s electricity transmission grid.
Podesta said that the starting point for negotiations in Congress should be the legislation written last year and reintroduced recently by Congress’ most fossil-fuel friendly Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Podesta reiterated the White House’s support for the Manchin legislation, which Biden gave last year in order to gain Manchin’s vote for the IRA. In addition to systemic reforms, Manchin’s bill singles out for fast-tracking one project in particular—the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline now under construction in his state.
“The President doesn’t love everything in the bill, but we support it,” Podesta said. “That’s what compromise means, and it will take compromise by everybody to get this done.”
Podesta also said the White House supported aspects of the permitting bills introduced within the past week by Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, highest ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “There are places—scheduling, timing, simplification—where there’s a lot of common ground,” Podesta said.
But he said the permitting reform legislation House Republicans passed earlier this spring “went too far in allowing fossil fuel companies to pollute our air and water and expose workers to dangerous chemicals.” The House GOP bill included nothing to accelerate electricity transmission build-out, and it would reinstate and codify regulations that the Trump administration put in place that would bar agencies from considering the indirect and cumulative climate impacts of big energy projects.
“No more climate denial,” Podesta said, spelling out the White House’s bottom line for legislation. “No more looking the other way, no more ‘you can’t analyze the climate effects of a project.'”
But it was clear that some environmentalists felt that Podesta’s words of support for a Manchin-type bill signaled a White House that was leaning too far to compromise with fossil fuel advocates, in line with other recent decisions by Biden, including approval of ConocoPhillips’ giant Willow oil project in the Arctic.
“It’s disappointing that Podesta is borrowing from the industry’s playbook and saying that environmental laws and front-line communities harmed by the fossil fuel industry are somehow barriers to a renewable energy future,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “To get to a renewable energy future, we have to stop using fossil fuels, not pass Sen. Manchin’s fossil fuel boondoggle.”
Other environmental advocates felt that Podesta struck an acceptable balance between the need for electricity transmission expansion and addressing community concerns.
“This is a roadmap for the modern review and approval process we need to support the clean energy build-out at the pace and scale required to confront the climate crisis,” said Christy Goldfuss, chief policy impact officer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It starts with improving engagement, up front and in a meaningful way, with the communities that host clean energy projects and must share in the benefits—economic and environmental—they bring.”
Goldfuss did say that NRDC remains opposed to Manchin’s legislation, and is concerned that any changes to the permitting avoid deploying hydrogen and carbon dioxide infrastructure that “prolong the life of dirty fossil fuels.”
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Some advocates of permitting reform, including those in the oil and gas industry, have raised the possibility of tying it to must-pass debt-ceiling legislation. Mike Sommers, chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, told the audience at the CERAWeek annual energy conference in Houston earlier this spring that linkage to the debt-ceiling negotiations was one reason he was optimistic permitting reform would get done this year.
“At some point, Republicans are going to have to vote for the debt increase,” he said. “And the question I think that the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is going to be asking is, ‘What am I going to get for that?'”
But Podesta said that Biden wants to see permitting reform passed through “regular order,” meaning stand-alone bipartisan legislation that would have to get at least 60 votes in the closely divided Senate. Podesta said the White House remains opposed to any bid to tie a deal on permitting reform to the federal debt ceiling.
“If you want to talk about the budget, we should talk about the budget. If you want to talk about permitting, talk about permitting,” Podesta said. “But you shouldn’t use full faith and credit as a club and a threat.”
Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.