The good news is that the government isn’t shutting down. Congress is on track to pass this week a stopgap spending bill that would keep the lights on past Friday, and it includes some $12 billion in badly needed Ukraine aid. But another critical provision failed to make it into the package: legislation that critics have unfairly characterized as a sop to Big Oil but that is, in fact, indispensable in the fight against climate change. This cannot be the last word on the proposal.
To call the plan from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) “permitting reform” undersells its importance. The United States’ existing energy infrastructure was built to run on fossil fuels. If the country is to transition quickly to renewables and other nonpolluting sources of energy, it will need to build a lot of new facilities — solar farms, wind turbines, geothermal plants and power lines to connect it all to the grid. Maintaining onerous rules on building energy projects puts renewables at a disadvantage relative to sources that have associated infrastructure already built out.
Mr. Manchin’s legislation would boost the federal government’s authority to approve electricity transmission lines — high-capacity wires that move electricity from producers to cities and towns — that it declares to be in the national interest and make it easier to pay for them.
A renewables-heavy power grid will require a robust transmission network. The sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow everywhere. Electricity will have to go from the places where conditions are good — wherever that happens to be on a given day — to people’s homes. ZERO Lab, a Princeton outfit that models energy policies, predicts that U.S. climate efforts would fall flat if the country failed to speed transmission buildout. Congress just passed a massive new climate bill, but the lab found that 80 percent of its promised emissions benefits this decade would not occur if the country continued to build new transmission lines at its current slow pace.
Environmentalist opponents of Mr. Manchin’s proposal complain that it would also ease fossil-fuel infrastructure permitting — it would specifically approve a West Virginia natural gas pipeline — and that Congress should pass a bill without such baggage. That is another way of arguing to do nothing, because such a package would not pass the Senate, where permitting legislation needs 60 votes. A Democratic aide said Mr. Manchin’s proposal would likely have attracted the support of 48 out of 50 Senate Democrats if it had come to the floor this week, meaning at least 12 Republicans would have needed to support it.
For their part, Republicans have long called for permitting reform because oil and gas companies want it, but they withheld their support for Mr. Manchin’s plan this week to punish the West Virginia senator for backing a big Democratic health and environment bill over the summer. Having their revenge, Republicans should come to the table. President Biden, whose spokeswoman says he is “committed” to Mr. Manchin’s legislation, should lean on his party’s balking lawmakers. Congressional Democratic leaders should aim to attach Mr. Manchin’s legislation to other must-pass bills in the coming months. The opportunity is still there. All sides should seize it.
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