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Will House Democrats back an emerging permitting deal in debt limit talks?

The Climate 202

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Below, we’ll cover the Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday that limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate wetlands. But first:

A permitting deal with small wins for both parties is emerging in debt limit talks

Lawmakers are nearing a modest deal on modifying the nation’s permitting process for energy projects as part of legislation to raise the debt ceiling, according to two people close to the deliberations, we scooped yesterday with our colleague Marianna Sotomayor.

The emerging deal would make incremental progress on both parties’ top permitting priorities, said the two individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private negotiations. It would seek to spur the construction of interstate transmission lines, a key Democratic demand, while modernizing the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, a longtime Republican goal.

But it’s unclear whether this agreement could garner enough support from House Democrats, who have championed more ambitious transmission proposals and who largely oppose changes to NEPA.

Republicans, who control the House and are refusing to raise the debt ceiling until Democrats meet a range of policy demands, have acknowledged they will probably need the help of Democrats to get a debt ceiling bill through the chamber. They could lose most of the roughly three-dozen members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, meaning as many as 100 Democrats might need to vote for the measure.

Of course, permitting is far from the only issue that could tank the debt ceiling agreement taking shape, with just six days until the government may not be able to pay its bills.

Power plays

The emerging deal would include new legislation from Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) aimed at expanding the country’s network of interstate power lines, according to the two people close to the talks.

  • The Big Wires Act would require regions to transfer at least 30 percent of their peak electricity demand between each other, according to a one-page summary. To meet this mandate, regions could build new transmission lines or upgrade existing ones.
  • A version of the bill was included in permitting legislation from Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Yet the measure would not make the sweeping changes sought by some liberal Democrats, who want to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the authority to decide where new interstate power lines should go — and who should pay for them.

A person familiar with the matter said that while including the Big Wires Act would be a positive step, it would probably not satisfy transmission developers, who have told Democrats that giving FERC more authority would address the significant delays they’re experiencing. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

The three Senate Democrats who have championed some of the most ambitious transmission proposals — Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Martin Heinrich (N.M.) — declined to comment or were not immediately available for comment while the Senate is in recess.

Still, the more modest transmission proposal could help get more Republicans on board.

  • Many Republicans have resisted the idea of giving FERC more authority, saying it would force residents of red states in the middle of the country, where wind farms are plentiful, to pay for power lines that send clean electricity to liberal cities and states.
  • “It’s simply not fair to force ratepayers in states like Utah or Idaho or Wyoming to pay for — and otherwise shoulder the burden associated with — the costs of the California and the Oregon climate policies,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said during a hearing this month.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.):

'Reason for mistrust’

The emerging permitting deal would also make some changes to NEPA, which requires the federal government to analyze the environmental impact of its proposed actions, the two people said.

The two individuals declined to elaborate on these changes. But Rep. Garret Graves (La.), a top GOP negotiator, has championed legislation that would set two-year deadlines for environmental reviews for major projects. 

His Builder Act, which was included in Republicans’ signature energy package, would also require lawsuits over projects to be filed within 120 days. GOP lawmakers have long blamed NEPA for the years-long delays that plague new highways, pipelines and other infrastructure projects nationwide.

Yet many liberal Democrats oppose what they see as efforts to undermine the bedrock environmental law, which has often been used to block polluting projects in low-income and minority communities.

  • “Under the guise of ‘permitting reform,’ these extreme, ideological attacks on NEPA would eliminate requirements to consider climate change and pollution impacts, cut public input opportunities, and limit judicial review,” 83 House Democrats wrote in a recent letter to President Biden and party leaders.
  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also warned during a Wednesday news conference that many caucus members “would not agree to a bill that has bad permitting reforms.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who chairs the caucus’s permitting task force, told The Climate 202 yesterday that he is skeptical of the permitting agreement on the table, although he is withholding judgment until seeing legislative text.

“What are they doing to the NEPA process?” Huffman said. “Are they putting a thumb on the scale for huge fossil fuel projects? Are they cutting out disadvantaged communities? You can’t know that until you actually read it. And there is reason for mistrust here.”

The Sierra Club:

Thanks to our colleagues Marianna Sotomayor and Leigh Ann Caldwell for their reporting help.

Climate in the courts

Supreme Court weakens EPA power to enforce Clean Water Act

The Supreme Court yesterday limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate the nation’s wetlands and waterways, marking yet another setback for the agency’s power to cut air and water pollution, The Washington Post’s Ann E. Marimow, Timothy Puko and Robert Barnes report. 

At issue in Sackett v. EPA was what counts as “waters of the United States” under protection of the Clean Water Act. Nearly two decades ago, the high court ruled that wetlands are protected if they have a “significant nexus” to regulated waters. 

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for himself and four other conservative justices, rejected that test. Siding with property rights groups and businesses, Alito narrowed the protections to wetlands that are directly connected to “navigable waters” such as rivers and lakes. 

Justice Elena Kagan objected on behalf of the court’s liberals, writing that the majority’s decision “prevents the EPA from keeping our country’s waters clean.” Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh broke with his conservative colleagues, writing in a separate opinion that the majority’s decision will have “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”

Now, developers will probably have an easier time getting permits to build near certain waterways. And the Biden administration will probably have to reconsider its own expanded definition of the type of waterways the EPA can regulate, leaving more of that power up to states.

The ruling is the second major environmental decision by the court in about a year. Last term, the court’s conservative majority restricted the EPA’s authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Agency alert

Interior moves ahead with transmission projects in Nevada

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management said yesterday it has advanced its review of NV Energy’s proposed transmission project that seeks to connect more clean energy in Nevada to the grid.

The agency released a draft environmental impact statement for the 450-mile Greenlink West project, which would span 450 miles between Las Vegas and Reno. It also announced plans to begin an environmental review of the 232-mile Greenlink North project, which would run 232 miles from Ely to Yerington.

The agency is aiming to have a final decision on the Greenlink West project by late 2024. Both projects could help the Biden administration reach its goals of permitting 25 gigawatts of clean energy on public lands by 2025 and having a carbon-free power sector by 2035. 

“I think we’re going to exceed it,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said of the first goal on a call with reporters yesterday, adding that the announcements are proof that “permitting can be done responsibly.”

Pressure points

Scientists detected 5,000 sea creatures nobody knew existed. It’s a warning.

Video taken from the Clarion-Clipperton Zone at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean shows a variety of previously unknown sea species. (Video: ROV Isis, SMARTEX Project, Natural Environment Research Council, UK)

Deep-sea mining for critical minerals used in clean-energy technology could harm sea creatures that scientists are only beginning to uncover and understand, according to an analysis published yesterday in the journal Current Biology, The Post’s Dino Grandoni reports. 

With the race to transition to clean energy underway, countries and companies are increasingly looking to mine copper, cobalt and other critical minerals from the seafloor. But researchers found that there are at least 5,000 sea animals completely new to science within the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a vast, mineral-rich area in the Pacific Ocean that is one of the world’s few remaining intact wildernesses. 

The discovery underscores a conundrum of renewable energy: Extracting the raw material needed to power the move away from fossil fuels has its own environmental and human costs. And the consequences might be felt in a place that has fostered the evolution of some animals found nowhere else on Earth.

Yet advocates of deep-sea mining say the toll is least consequential under the sea, away from people and even richer ecosystems on land. “It just fundamentally makes sense that we look for where we can extract these metals with the lightest planetary touch,” said Gerard Barron, chief executive of the Metals Co., one of the leading firms aiming to mine the seafloor. 

In the atmosphere


Live footage of House lawmakers leaving the Capitol yesterday for the long weekend:

Thanks for reading!