Jun 5, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The emergency era of environmental policy

An illustration of two bells on top of earth.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Welcome to the crisis era of energy and environmental policymaking.

Driving the news: A new White House executive order, citing COVID-19, invokes emergency powers to accelerate and even waive some environmental reviews of infrastructure and energy projects.

  • The order yesterday said the initiative is needed for economic recovery from the pandemic. It's aimed at speeding up mines, pipelines, highways and more, per the Washington Post.
  • "Unnecessary regulatory delays will deny our citizens opportunities for jobs and economic security, keeping millions of Americans out of work and hindering our economic recovery from the national emergency," the order states.
  • Invoking the pandemic emergency adds a new rationale to longstanding White House efforts to ease restrictions on energy projects.

But, but, but: President Trump is not alone in calling for use of emergency powers in environmental and energy policymaking.

Outside climate advisers to the Democratic National Committee yesterday released a wide-ranging set of recommendations.

  • One of them is that the next president should declare a "national climate emergency" under the National Emergencies Act to unlock "key statutory powers" to enable aggressive emissions-cutting steps.
  • It's unknown which recommendations will make it into the formal DNC platform, but the idea has already been in the bloodstream on the left.
  • For instance, Bernie Sanders' climate platform called for using emergency powers. Joe Biden's plan calls climate change an emergency but stops short of invoking emergency statutes and powers.

What we're watching: Whether Trump's move made it more likely that a subsequent president could invoke emergency powers to push climate initiatives.

What's next: A more concrete movement is already underway to stitch low-carbon energy measures into economic recovery legislation in response to the COVID-19 crisis — an idea Biden has endorsed.

  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer this week issued a full-throated statement of support for the idea in response to this letter from a bunch of House and Senate Democrats.
  • There's precedent here. The 2009 economic stimulus package contained roughly $90 billion worth of low-carbon energy and transportation provisions.

Getting back to Trump's order, one question is whether companies might be wary of taking advantage of project approvals issued under it.

  • "We believe opponents of the Administration’s actions can and are likely to challenge permits issued under the emergency authorities provided by the June 4, 2020 EO," ClearView Energy Partners said in a note.
  • However, they add that the administration's "project-by-project approach" signals that opponents would need to litigate approvals individually, a slow process.

The big picture: Via the Washington Examiner, "According to legal experts, the federal government can waive environmental regulations during an emergency, but it’s primarily been used in the past for physical reasons rather than economic ones."

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