Before they scooted out of lawless and increasingly dangerous Washington, DC, for the Easter recess, the House of Representatives passed the most important energy legislation (emphasis on “energy”) Congress has considered in almost a decade.
The Lower Energy Costs Act is a buffet of various energy and permitting provisions ranging from an affirmation of the wisdom of exporting crude oil (which strengthens the United States’ own domestic oil and natural gas production) to a remedy for a nettlesome provision in the Clean Water Act that has given States a de facto veto over energy projects.
The legislation is a good first step in fixing some of what ails the permitting of energy projects. Given that it has taken more than 50 years for us to create this particular swamp, it seems reasonable to assume that it might take us a while to drain it.
There is reason for optimism. The environmental left (especially the donor class) now seems dimly aware that the barriers to energy projects they have carefully and lovingly created over the last two generations can now be used against the wind, solar, and electric transmission projects they support.
Signs of common sense are starting to emerge. For example, 29 Democrats joined all the House Republicans in support of Congressman Gary Palmer’s (R-AL) amendment to prevent the administration from banning gas stoves. Twenty-one Democrats joined all House Republicans in voting to require the EPA to submit a report to Congress identifying regulations that have damaged energy independence and increased energy costs.
It’s a start. Unfortunately, despite these promising, halting steps, the Democrats eventually retreated to their corner: just four House Democrats voted for the final legislation.
The Lower Energy Costs Act now goes onto the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) charmingly and diplomatically offered: “[T]he House Republicans’ so-called energy bill is dead on arrival. Dead on arrival.”
That seems unnecessarily certain. The simple reality is that there is a deal to be made in the Senate. Senate Democrats believe that nationalizing the electric transmission grid – turning over decisions about planning and who pays for what with respect to electric transmission projects to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – is the best way to get transmission built rapidly.
Leaving aside the very shaky proposition that involving the federal government makes things happen more quickly, Senate Democrats believe that placing the federal government in charge is necessary to bring about the energy transition that all the cool kids are talking about.
For their part, it is easy to imagine that some Senate Republicans might go along with that careless and suboptimal idea if they get more permitting concessions that make it easier to build natural gas and other types of pipelines.
Such a potential arrangement of the deck chairs is partially grounded in reality. If one is serious about an energy transition, the only way it can possibly happen is if we build lots more transmission lines (to move solar and wind power) and lots more natural gas pipelines (to move the natural gas that will provide the necessary electric generation when the intermittent sources are not generating). No other approach has any hope of success.
Still, the environmental left will probably need to get mugged by reality a few more times before they are prepared to accept more pipelines of any kind. About five years from now – after there have been enough wind, solar, and transmission projects stalled, delayed or canceled to have gotten everyone’s attention – the Democrats will be ready to deal with the real pathologies of our permitting process.
Until then, we will continue to suffer from the exigencies of the current federal permitting regime.
Michael McKenna is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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