By Jackson Voss, AAE's Climate Policy Coordinator
The burning of fossil fuels for energy has also changed our climate, making life in Louisiana increasingly difficult in the face of extreme weather and sea level rise, further threatening the well-being of our most vulnerable friends, family, and neighbors.
To prevent things from getting worse, we must eliminate our use of fossil fuels as quickly and thoroughly as possible. For the purposes of generating the electricity that powers our homes and businesses, that means scaling up renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind – which could also have the benefit of reducing electricity costs and reducing our dependence on corporate monopolies to provide all our energy needs, if deployed correctly.
But there are a number of barriers to accomplishing this. As my colleague Yvonne wrote about recently, one of the most significant obstacles is a desperate need for a buildout and upgrading of our country’s transmission infrastructure at a scale we have not seen since national electrification efforts during the New Deal. Simply put, we must bolster our electrical grid all across the country to make a transition to renewable energy possible.
One issue that has been raised repeatedly is that it can often take years for transmission infrastructure, as well as renewable energy projects, to receive the permits necessary for construction and operation. To build and upgrade our grid at the speed necessary to rapidly add renewables to the grid and scale down use of fossil fuel-burning power plants in time to prevent significantly more global warming, something must change.
This has led to a debate over an issue that inspires stronger feelings than you might expect: permitting reform.
What is permitting reform?
It depends on who you ask.
Generally, there is one major area of agreement: to stave off worst-case climate change scenarios, we (the United States) must build out enough transmission infrastructure and renewable energy production in the next decade to decarbonize our economy as much as possible.
But that’s about where the agreement ends. To some, permitting reform means changing who is allowed to grant permits for certain infrastructural or energy-related projects – for example, taking powers typically granted to state or local agencies and centralizing them so that they may be handled by a single federal regulatory agency (or the reverse – granting a state agency the power to handle permitting in lieu of federal review).
To others, it means changing certain environmental or procedural policies to shorten or eliminate requirements for certain environmental reviews or public comment periods, and make it difficult for people to oppose or delay infrastructural projects (essentially, deregulation of certain infrastructure projects – notably, many supporters of oil and gas favor this kind of “permitting reform”).
And yet others don’t view the existing permitting process as the primary issue – instead, they recommend hiring significantly more people to work for permitting agencies and better coordination between these agencies, to ensure that projects aren’t delayed simply because there aren’t enough people to review permits and environmental assessments.
Would permit reform help?
While many different advocates and stakeholders agree on the need for speedy deployment of renewable energy infrastructure, the debate over permitting reform has revealed some serious divisions within the broader climate-action space. In particular, there are concerns that – in pursuit of growing a green energy industry as quickly as possible – that laws and processes that are intended to protect the environment and public health will be weakened, without necessarily taking action to ensure these changes would benefit and extend the economic viability of fossil fuel corporations.
In a state like Louisiana, where oil and gas is politically very powerful and tightly aligned with investor-owned utilities, it is difficult to imagine that reforming permitting to allow projects to happen more quickly and without as many environmental protections would result in the rapid development of a renewable energy sector. More likely would be widespread deployment of unproven or dangerous technologies like carbon capture, a build-out of more pipelines and wells, and development of petrochemical plants to refine hydrogen and ammonia, all of which would be framed as accomplishing “decarbonization” regardless of whether it resulted in any actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
What comes next?
For now, any permitting reform at the federal level that would be broadly acceptable to environmental justice and “green growth” advocates (such as reform to speed up renewable electrification and transmission) appears to be off the table in Congress. But there has been some movement by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that might result in better planning and coordination, and consequently faster permitting, for renewable energy projects and related transmission.
In the meantime, it is important for Louisiana policymakers and advocates to think critically about the work that needs to be done to strengthen and build up a grid capable of delivering renewable energy to every household and business, without expanding fossil fuel production or causing further environmental injustice. In part 3 of this series, we’ll dive a bit deeper into what that would mean for Louisiana and how we could accomplish it.