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Updated Jun 7, 2023, 9:13am EDT
politicsNorth America

‘What’s the Deal on Permitting Reform?’ Highlights from Semafor’s summit

Sen. Joe Manchin speaks to Semafor's Steve Clemons
Kristoffer Tripplaar
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The Scene

Semafor hosted the definitive conversation on permitting reform — the hottest topic in Washington right now. We spoke to top lawmakers, including Sen. Joe Manchin, industry leaders, and environmentalists about whether a deal is possible to cut red tape for critical infrastructure, renewable energy, and fossil fuels.

Catch up on the biggest takeaways here:

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The View From Lawmakers

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Co)

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Hickenlooper said that it was not important to focus on whether Republicans or Democrats won the debt ceiling debate.

“I think sometimes you can’t control the outcome and trying to decide exactly who’s most valuable player detracts from the success,” he said.

On developing transmission lines, he said that the federal government has a responsibility to contribute to development despite criticism from utility company CEOs who said lawmakers are socializing energy.

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“When we look at a free market economy versus the common good, and it’s a difficult balance to find in this case, I recognize and appreciate those large capital investments that many utilities have made,” he said. “And I think the system will only work if we can help the utilities maximize those investments, and, at the same time, provide the infrastructure that the country needs to be efficient and successful.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)

Just as Manchin began speaking at the summit, the program was interrupted by about 20 protesters chanting “dirty deal.” They occupied the stage for several minutes and also sang, Take Me Home, Country Roads. Manchin later said that he tried to talk to the protesters but was unsuccessful in starting a dialogue with them.

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Once the summit resumed, Manchin said that one of the biggest problems is that the U.S. economy is set up in a way that prefers foreign actors for the development of energy and environmental projects, such as the production of EVs. He said policies need to shift to both source materials and build these products in the U.S.

“We’ve never been in that position,” he said. “The United States of America has always been able to take care of its transportation mode, whether it’s cars, trains, and planes. We’ve been able to build it and innovate and create everything right here in North America.”

He also criticized environmental reviews that he said are delaying the development of much-needed energy infrastructure projects.

“It’s not to basically support the fossil industry,” he said. “We’re not moving electrons... We’re just not moving. Those type of things don’t happen in developed nations and it shouldn’t happen in ours.”

Manchin said the one thing he was pushing for in the debt ceiling bill was allowing states the right to independently set up transmission lines, rather than through federal efforts, adding that the provision did not make it into this bill but he hoped it would make it into the next one.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH)

Wenstrup said he voted against President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill “because we wanted to get reforms into the infrastructure bill that would speed up permitting and processing.”

He said that with inflation, on average, “it takes about four and a half years to get permitting done before you even break ground while the cost keeps going up.”

Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA)

Peters said that climate activists, and not oil and gas lobbyists, are at the forefront of climate bill changes and are primarily driving the conversation on Capitol Hill.

He said that future oil and gas pipelines are going to face resistance from activists despite the fact that permitting for these projects is easier to obtain than that for electrical lines.

Peters joked that he was “jealous” of how pipelines get treated and would love to have “wires get the same treatment.”

Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL)

Waltz said that he believes current policy is not properly addressing a transition to green energy, citing a failed Alaska copper mine permit that would have helped in the development of electric vehicles.

“We just have a massive policy disconnect, in terms of our green energy goals and our transition goals that we’ve seen, and legislation coming out of Congress in this administration,” he said.

He added that these missteps are allowing China to dominate in energy and infrastructure.

“We’re essentially driving ourselves right into the hands of our greatest adversary,” he said, adding leaders are “ignoring China’s abuses” of human rights in many of these critical mineral mines the country has set up across the globe.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC)

Mace acknowledged that the Republican Party will eventually need to adopt an explicit environmental protection platform because “the people will demand it.”

“I think slowly but surely the party is moving that way, but we’re just not there yet,” she said.

Mace, who voted against the debt ceiling bill, said she wished there had been a separate energy bill as opposed to environmental protection reviews included in the debt ceiling bill.

“I didn’t feel it was germane to a debt ceiling bill, and it’s one of the things I hate about Congress where they try to throw things in,” she said.

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The View From Environmental advocates

The Nature Conservancy’s North America Climate Mitigation Program

Jason Albritton, director of the program, said that “there is no perfect deal” on permitting reform and lawmakers need to work quickly to pass any deal as climate change becomes more of a threat.

“The longer we wait to reform some of these permitting processes, the less chance we have of meeting some of these climate and clean energy goals,” he said.

Natural Resources Defense Council

Manish Bapna, president of the council, said that the debt ceiling reduction actually complicates the process by which lawmakers can enact the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“Narrowing what triggers NEPA is probably neither good from the project or from the environment system,” he said.

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The View From The Chamber of Commerce

Marty Durbin, Senior Vice President of Policy at the Chamber of Commerce, said that the debate on permitting can’t solely focus on
energy, saying that Washington isn’t paying enough attention to infrastructure projects like roads and bridges.

“All of those projects are also in need of permitting reform to help us build the economy — we need the resilience into the system that will then help us on the climate side as well, to achieve those objectives,” he said.

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