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OPINION

To better address the climate crisis, the US must reform its permitting process

It can take a decade to permit and build offshore wind, clean transportation, and major electric transmission. This is as unacceptable as it is unnecessary.

In this 2016 file photo, three wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project stand off Block Island, R.I.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law have the potential to accelerate the urgent shift to clean energy demanded by the climate crisis. They can help shore up failing and unsafe infrastructure holding back our economy, and begin to remedy the injustices that communities of color and low income have suffered at the hands of government — from major highways cutting through the heart of communities to unsafe drinking water.

But it is impossible to realize this potential without addressing the nation’s failing regulatory infrastructure. Outdated and unwieldy review and permitting processes hinder our ability to meet the urgency of the climate crisis and bog down much-needed projects in delays and litigation that fail to safeguard the communities and the natural resources they’re designed to protect.

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The subject of permitting reform has long been caught in an all-too-familiar crossfire. Fossil fuel interests and other industry lobbyists generate endless proposals under the mantle of “reform” that would weaken the standards and protections necessary to avert climate catastrophe and safeguard our health and environment. Environmental groups and other progressives reflexively defend the status quo as sacrosanct or easily fixed by tweaks to bureaucratic practice.

The permitting reform proposal Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia offered earlier this year reprised this pattern, sending both sides back to their corners and frustrating any truly inclusive, bipartisan dialogue about improving the current system. But now that the White House has signaled it wants permitting reform taken up during Congress’s lame duck session, there is an opportunity for all sides to work together to craft a more effective bill.

Progressives cannot be afraid to begin this conversation. A recent report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that to meet President Biden’s commitment to fully decarbonize the electric grid by 2035, the United States will have to more than quadruple the pace at which it is deploying renewable energy technologies while building extensive supporting transmission infrastructure. A Princeton study suggests that 80 percent of the emissions reductions promised by the IRA will be lost if we do not accelerate the buildout of clean energy and transmission.

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And that’s just in the energy sector. To have any hope of modernizing the nation’s transportation sector, we have to invest in mass transit alternatives to gas-powered vehicles while reconnecting communities that have been divided by ill-conceived projects. Trips between certain points on the Northeast Corridor, our nation’s busiest rail line, take more time today than in the 1980s due to chronic underinvestment and these bureaucratic obstacles. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law committed more than $864 billion to address these issues, but without serious efforts to make these projects faster and cheaper, we will fail to make best use of this investment.

It can take a decade to permit and build offshore wind, clean transportation, and major electric transmission. This is as unacceptable as it is unnecessary. While permitting is not the only source of delay, it is virtually impossible to build out essential infrastructure and clean energy under the current approach to federal, state, and local project review and approvals. Pretending otherwise sacrifices any claim the United States has to global climate leadership and any hope for the communities hit first and worst by pollution and climate risk from fossil fuels.

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The current system has its virtues. Environmental and community groups have been able to stop many destructive projects through the scrutiny and public involvement mandated by current law. Judicial review, while a source of delays, has provided a key safeguard in the current system.

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry and well-heeled interests have too often co-opted the process to their advantage. They are able to overwhelm, out-lawyer, and outlast under-resourced advocacy and community groups while deploying far more money and influence. Look no further than New England: In Massachusetts, fossil fuel interests are funding spurious litigation under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act to stop offshore wind projects. In Connecticut, the opposition to efforts to upgrade the Northeast Rail Corridor comes most often from wealthy landowners, not environmental groups or low-income citizens.

Rather than idealize the status quo, we need to imagine and build consensus around reforms that lead to quicker, better decisions and elevate substantive protections over procedural parrying. Transitioning to clean energy and achieving climate justice require hard choices, and progressives and environmentalists need to recognize that those choices are necessary. The work to achieve a cleaner, more equitable future will not be possible unless we lead the cause of permitting reform and stop ceding that ground to the opposition.

Otherwise, our hopes for timely and just climate action, rational infrastructure choices, and healthier communities using the new resources Congress has just provided will be crushed under the slow-moving wheels of a broken system.

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Chris Murphy is a US senator from Connecticut. Brad Campbell is president of the Conservation Law Foundation, a former regional administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and a former senior official at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.