Modern American environmental policy is rooted in regulation. Beginning in the 1970s, in response to the robust conservation movement and genuine air and water pollution crises, the US government created the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Perhaps the most far-reaching development of that era was the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which ultimately coated all infrastructural decision-making — at the federal, state, and local levels — with the friction of “environmental impact review.”
A second era took shape in the 1990s and 2000s amid growing efforts to combat climate change. Rather than regulating environmental problems, the new approach was to subsidize environmental solutions. This included federal tax credits for renewable energy and carbon removal and state rules mandating that electric utilities use solar and wind power. These subsidies reached an apotheosis last year with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which extended and supercharged incentives for low-carbon technology development and deployment.
But in order for the promise of the second era to be fully realized, we may have to revisit the assumptions of the first one. We may now find ourselves having to deregulate. As developers and planners set about deploying more sustainable technology and infrastructure en masse, often with generous government subsidies in hand, they increasingly find themselves stymied by legacy environmental regulations imposed by those same governments. The American regulatory state originally envisioned to protect the environment now regularly obstructs the large-scale demonstration, licensing, and deployment of environmental solutions today.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, lead author of the Inflation Reduction Act, recognized this tension, which is why he insisted those subsidies be paired with reforms to the nation’s permitting laws — reforms that were quashed by progressive Democrats in Congress.
Examples of such obstruction are legion. While NEPA was intended to — and did — prevent deployment of environmentally damaging infrastructure in the past, today the law prevents more renewable energy projects than oil and gas projects. State-level NEPA copycats, like the notoriously counterproductive California Environmental Quality Act, have been invoked to block bike lanes, a bullet train, and increased student enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley.
Proponents of current regulations might counter that relatively few solar and wind projects fail or face delays due to laws like the California Environmental Quality Act. But given the magnitude of the infrastructure buildout that climate hawks envision over the coming decades, can decarbonization efforts succeed if projects must survive a gantlet of regulatory challenges?
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides a damning example of how regulatory oversight can be weaponized to stall carbon-reduction projects. Until the new Vogtle-3 reactor in Georgia produced its first electrons for the power grid in March, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had gone nearly 50 years without ever licensing a reactor technology that went on to produce electricity commercially. Now, the NRC appears ready to impose regulations on a new generation of smaller, safer reactors that are even tighter than the oppressive rules that have stymied nuclear power for decades.
It’s not just environmental regulations that obstruct a cleaner environmental future. The Jones Act, a 100-year-old law requiring that goods shipped between two US ports be transported on American-made, American-built, and American-crewed vessels, threatens to impede the construction of offshore wind farms. With no US-built wind turbine installation vessel in service, American offshore wind projects must charter foreign installation ships, transport turbine parts to those ships from Jones Act-compliant barges, then transfer components by crane, adding significant risks, time, and costs.
Urban zoning and historic preservation laws, largely intended to maintain “neighborhood character,” are now widely recognized as the chief impediment to building new housing in growing American cities. This in turn frustrates efforts to construct denser neighborhoods with more environmentally efficient properties.
A growing push to overcome this last barrier in particular hints at a positive path forward for deregulatory politics nationwide. Over the last decade, a largely grassroots movement has risen in America’s cities, composed of urbanists who call themselves “YIMBYs” (which stands for “yes in my backyard”). YIMBYs see themselves as a necessary counterforce to NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”) who use zoning laws and other regulatory restrictions to obstruct, delay, or diminish plans for housing abundance in high-demand urban areas. And YIMBYs have increasingly triumphed against this restrictive status quo.
Building abundant low-carbon energy, agricultural, and transportation systems will require learning from the pro-growth, pro-development activist and policy inclinations of the YIMBY movement. We ecomodernists have long urged an evolution of the environmental movement in this direction, emphasizing the central role that technology and green growth — rather than personal sacrifice or regulatory restrictions — will play in addressing environmental problems in the 21st century.
That is not to suggest that deregulation must fully displace the previous approaches to American environmental policymaking. Government R&D programs initiated in the 1950s and 1960s gave birth to the modern solar and nuclear industries, among many others. Regulations today are often drivers of technological innovation, as has been the case with Department of Energy efficiency standards that led to the diffusion of LED light bulbs. And the subsidies established over the last 40 years will be with us for years or decades to come. Regulation, deregulation, and subsidization can coexist and even harmonize.
To advocate for deregulation is not to demand that lawmakers take a hatchet to longstanding regulations. But neither will a mere scalpel suffice. For the nation to efficiently build offshore wind farms and transport low-carbon fuels from coast to coast, Congress must overhaul the Jones Act. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must be cajoled — if not mandated — to incorporate the climate and public benefits of clean nuclear energy into its decision-making. Federal policymakers need to stop subsidizing low-carbon energy and transmission projects with one hand while draping red tape around the same projects with the other. And in a nation with thousands of governmental and municipal jurisdictions, faced with the task of completely reconstructing the built environment over the coming decades, these actions are just the beginning of the deregulatory imperatives to come.
Alex Trembath is deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, which researches solutions to environmental and human-development challenges. Seaver Wang is co-director of the institute’s climate and energy team.