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Frustrated Senate Democrats Look to Regulators for Permitting Relief

Analysis by Energy Workforce President Tim Tarpley

Energy Workforce President Tim Tarpley

Despite talks continuing on permitting reform, some Democratic members in the Senate are growing frustrated and looking for other options. This week, Sen, Joe Manchin (D-WV) and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine opportunities to reform the process for permitting transmission lines, pipelines and energy production on federal lands.

The majority of witnesses agreed the biggest hurdle to expanding transmission and shoring up the power grid is delays in permitting and litigation surrounding projects. Additionally, most members on the Committee were interested in pursuing permitting reform, understanding the dire need especially for transmission, but seemed open to more discussions on federal land and water leasing that is necessary for oil and gas projects along with wind and solar.

Discussions also continue in the House but given the fact that the House has already passed a large permitting reform package, it appears most likely that further action will have to start in the Senate.

Of note is that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is calling on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “strengthen” and finalize a series of major rules that could help speed the deployment of clean energy transmission lines. Schumer focused on several proposed rules and inquiries issued in the past year and a half that have collectively generated extensive interest from clean energy developers, environmental groups, grid planners and state officials. The letter also laid out details that Schumer said should be changed once the commission finalizes the rules.

This all comes in context of action in January when the commission laid out a proposed plan to issue permits for certain transmission projects that the Department of Energy considers to be nationally significant and that have been denied a state permit. Leader Schumer would like this plan to be formalized as soon as possible. The letter also asked the commission to continue working on another proposed rule geared toward reducing delays for new energy projects trying to connect to the power grid which they are scheduled to consider today. 

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), a Senate leader on energy issues, released the text of a letter he plans to release highlighting similar thoughts. He wrote, “To achieve our national clean energy goals we will need to expand grid capacity by 60% by 2030 and triple our capacity by 2050.”

These kinds of public statements by Senate Democratic leaders are relevant for two reasons. First, it shows that they may be losing confidence in the potential for a bipartisan deal to be reached in the short term. Second, and more relevant for our purposes, this shows that they see a potential to get the transmission issues fixed through the regulatory process and not legislatively. One of the things that gave me and many watchers of this issue hope that a bipartisan deal could be reached is that permitting reform is needed by all constituencies on both sides of the aisle. Renewable energy needs reform just as much, if not more, than traditional fossil fuel energy. With everybody is in the same boat, this opens up the potential for a deal.

However, the “bad” news is that if Senate Democrats are able to take their main need in permitting reform (transmission) off the table, it will make them less likely to support a larger compromise package. All hope is not lost however, there is no guarantee that regulatory actions can fix all of the major issues that the Democrats are concerned about. Additionally, in Washington it’s hard to bet which body can move slower, Congress or the regulators. All of this comes in the context of election season being just around the corner. Past history suggests that once we get into October the clock stops in many respects. The coming weeks will be important to watch.  

Tim Tarpley, Energy Workforce President, analyzes federal policy for the Energy Workforce & Technology Council. Click here to subscribe to the Energy Workforce newsletter, which highlights sector-specific issues, best practices, activities and more.



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