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White House unveils climate-focused permits plan

White House clean energy czar John Podesta

Podesta speaks earlier this month. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A White House permitting plan released Wednesday is a left-of-center suite of proposals to speed up climate action that reveals just how far Democrats are from what the GOP wants.

Why it matters: President Biden’s positions indicate it will be tough to strike a grand permitting bargain that rides on a debt fix timed to avoid default, given how close the “x-date” may be.

  • “Do it through regular order,” White House clean energy czar John Podesta said of permitting talks during an event at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Driving the news: The White House plan mirrors closely what Democrats are talking about on the Hill — it’s largely about renewable energy, transmission and mining, while also emphasizing environmental justice.

  • They want to expedite environmental reviews specifically for low-carbon projects and site renewables at historically contaminated sites like landfills and old mines.
  • They’re seeking to expand categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act and require more coordinated community engagement during the environmental permit review process.
  • The plan also emphasizes agency coordination, including proposals to update federal data collection for environmental reviews.

Between the lines: The plan delineates fresh permitting red lines for the White House — namely, anything that denies an immediate need to tackle climate change.

  • Podesta said there’s “common ground” with the GOP on “scheduling, timing [and] simplification.”
  • But “where we’re resistant” is anything that amounts to “climate denial,” Podesta said, emphasizing Biden’s veto threat against Republicans’ H.R. 1.
  • “No more looking the other way. No more ‘You can’t analyze the climate effects of a project,’” he said.

Zoom in: On transmission, the White House would give federal regulators more control over siting and cost allocation authority for big interstate transmission projects.

  • Currently, those power lines can take more than a decade to move through myriad bureaucratic jurisdictions, but they are crucial to deploying renewable energy more widely.
  • The administration also wants to clear out interconnection queues and accelerate deployment of so-called “grid enhancing technologies” that can ease congestion on the existing grid.

Yes, but: The White House didn’t include big-ticket items in Sen. Joe Manchin’s permits bill like lawsuit shields or approval “shot-clocks.”

  • The energy industry is lobbying hard for such NEPA timelines, and it’s a central part of what House Republicans and Manchin are pushing on the Hill.
  • But Podesta said Biden still supports Manchin's bill and wants it to be the starting point for bipartisan permit talks.
  • “The president doesn’t love everything in the [Manchin] bill, but he supports it because that’s what compromise means,” Podesta said.

Quick take: The White House is walking a fine line between some environmental allies on the left and its own desires to expedite the renewable projects incentivized by the Inflation Reduction Act.

  • Podesta touched on that dynamic: "If we can't build some new things in a few backyards, the climate crisis will destroy everyone's backyards. I may not be popular among my friends in the environmental movement for saying that, but that is the reality."
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