May 19, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: The new fault lines on energy permitting

Illustration of the tip of a pen touching a jagged fault line

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

A letter obtained by Axios highlights how energy permitting talks on Capitol Hill are straining ties between green activists and the renewables industry, despite shared climate goals.

Driving the news: Dozens of groups want the American Clean Power Association (ACP) — a key industry group — to oppose policies they say would weaken protections from "dangerous" fossil fuel projects.

  • People living in poverty and communities of color have "long been the sacrifice zones" adjacent to pollution from coal-fired power, oil refineries and more, the letter to ACP states.
  • It's from an array of local and regional groups, and some nationally-oriented ones, like Greenpeace and the Climate Reality Project.

What they're saying: "Are the marginal gains you’ll see from this assault on environmental laws worth the price of throwing frontline communities under the bus?"

Why it matters: Zero-carbon power advocates say easier permitting of transmission and climate-friendly energy is crucial to meeting U.S. emissions goals.

The big picture: Any deal in this Congress would likely need to ease the path for fossil infrastructure like pipelines, drilling leases, and liquified natural gas projects.

  • Activists fear GOP-backed provisions, like new deadlines under the National Environmental Policy Act and limiting court challenges.
  • Permitting is also a part of the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations.

The intrigue: This dynamic has frontline and grassroots groups worried about ACP's posture.

  • The letter accuses clean energy companies and trade groups of "giving cover" to pro-fossil lawmakers whose plans give "crumbs" to renewables while greatly aiding oil, gas and coal interests.

Of note: The letter does not include many large groups aligned with mainstream Democrats, like the League of Conservation Voters and Center for American Progress.

Catch up fast: ACP had nice things to say about permitting provisions of the House GOP's energy bill.

  • The group was disappointed when Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) bill — which many activists opposed — stalled last year.
  • ACP joined other renewables groups in a letter on permitting that also included oil, mining and chemical industry groups.

Yes, but: ACP on Thursday praised a new plan from Senate environment committee chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) that's focused on renewables, transmission and climate-related infrastructure.

What we're watching: The relationship between activists and the renewables industry as it grows increasingly mainstream and reaches across the aisle.

The other side: ACP spokesman Jason Ryan said permitting is "critical" to the transition to climate-friendly energy.

  • But he added: "[W]e agree that permitting reform cannot come at the expense of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws" or "sacrifice critical environmental protections."
  • "We appreciate the opportunity to engage with the signatories and look forward to meeting with them in the near future," he said in response to the letter.

The bottom line: Coalition politics ain't easy.

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