By Jessica Goad, Manager of Research and Outreach, Public Lands Project, Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee spent Thursday morning learning that their four bills introduced to speed up permitting of renewable energy on public lands in reality would have very little effect on renewable energy development. Indeed, agency witnesses testified that the policies could have the opposite effect — creating more lawsuits and delaying projects.
As became clear during the hearing, the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service already have the authority to do what three of the bills propose — exempt projects with no environmental impact from the environmental review process. The key difference with the bills promoted by Republicans is that they completely exempt wind and geothermal testing facilities from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law designed to minimize conflict with projects from the start. According to the government witnesses, this could lead to more delays in permitting. Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director Mike Pool explained bluntly that the GOP legislation would create “more lawsuits”:
I believe any action that would shortchange the NEPA process would result in more lawsuits.
Pool further noted in his testimony that the legislation could have “unintended consequences.” Because of this, the wind and solar energy industries did not come out in favor of the three bills that would affect them. While thanking Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD) for her leadership in introducing one of the bills, Chris Taylor, testifying on behalf of Element Power (a solar and wind company) and the American Wind Energy Association, stated that the problems his organization sees with permitting wind testing facilities “can be improved within the confines of NEPA.” In other words, the legislation is not needed.
As ten witnesses testified before the committee in two different oversight hearings a few weeks ago, consistent and reliable financing is the biggest roadblock to renewable energy development on public lands. Taylor of the American Wind Energy Association reiterated that point today, saying: “Far and away the biggest challenge facing the wind industry right now is the lack of stable federal policy support, namely long-term financial incentives and a demand-side policy like a clean or renewable electricity standard…it needs to be clear that any changes that are made to make it easier to site projects on public lands will be of limited use if projects aren’t able to be built because federal tax incentives…or because the lack of demand-side policies limit the market for renewable energy.”
Republicans killed off the best mechanism for long-term policy support for the renewable energy industry when they demonized climate legislation, which would have allowed the market to determine the most efficient mechanism for making desperately needed reductions in carbon pollution. They continue to slash clean energy programs and prop up the oil and coal industries with new pollution subsidies.
Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ): So you already have the authority to grant categorical exclusions. Now, H.R. 2172 would in effect then prevent your agencies from taking a more though look at a projects when there are extraordinary circumstances.
Mike Pool, Deputy Director, Bureau of Land Management: Yes, that’s correct.
Holt: So H.R. 2172 really is not only unnecessary but might tie the agencies hands. Would you see it that way?
Pool: I believe it would, yes.
Holt: The majority claims, Mr. Pool, that this legislation is necessary to streamline the permitting process for renewable energy,. But, as you have said, and I just want to get this clearly in the record, if the legislation were enacted, couldn’t it have the opposite effect and slow down or even prevent by leading agency to select the no action alternative, even with longer environmental review the project might have been approved?
Pool: That is our position, yes sir.
Holt: Do you believe that H.R. 2170 would lead to more lawsuits and hence possible delays to renewable energy projects?
Pool: I believe any action that would shortchange the NEPA process would result in more lawsuits.
Holt: I would comment that although some people want to avoid the comment period, the comment period actually is a way of avoiding lawsuits, but that’s just my comment. Let me talk with Mr. K in the minute and a half that I have remaining, for the Bureau of Ocean Energy. The current system in place provides the agency can issue leases to companies so their claim is jumped by other companies during the testing. Is that correct?
Walter Cruickshank, Deputy Director, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement: That’s correct.
Holt: And the testing can cost millions of dollars, I believe.
Cruickshank: That is correct.
Holt: 2173 appears to set up a wholly new process of permitting for site testing which would appear to add an additional layer of permitting review for offshore renewable energy projects. Do you see it that way at the Bureau?
Cruickshank: We would actually like to see some clarification on the bill, we think that is one likely interpretation that it would add an additional process to what we have in place now.
Holt: So that it could add, actually additional hurdles.