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Despite objections from fellow Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he will press ahead with a deal to attach an overhaul of energy project permitting to a must-pass spending bill. Meanwhile, Republicans have a plan of their own.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed Tuesday to attach a controversial environmental permitting proposal to a spending bill needed to keep the government running, setting up a potential staredown with progressive House Democrats who strongly oppose the changes.
In doing so, Schumer, a Democrat from New York, is making good on a deal he struck last month with Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to secure his vote to pass a sweeping environmental, tax and health care package known as the Inflation Reduction Act. To hold up the rest of the bargain, Schumer is planning to attach permitting changes Manchin wants to the spending bill Congress needs to pass by Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown.
“The bottom line is the permitting agreement is part of the IRA agreement,” Schumer said. “I’m going to add it to the [spending bill] and it’s going to pass.”
Key Democrats—including House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, of Arizona and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats—object to Manchin’s proposal and its inclusion in the spending measure.
While they stopped short of threatening to block the spending bill if the permitting proposals are attached to it, Grijalva and 71 other House Democrats in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday, registered their opposition to the plan.
Republicans, meanwhile, have come forward with their own proposal, which would go further than Manchin’s in reworking environmental permitting guidelines.
Many state and local officials, Republican politicians and construction industry leaders have long complained about the delays lengthy environmental reviews can have on building infrastructure.
But the permitting overhaul that Manchin is pushing for appears to focus primarily on energy projects, such as pipelines for moving natural gas, that are a priority in places like his state. These proposals include setting a two-year limit on the federal government to green light energy-related infrastructure.
Manchin has emphasized that the changes could also help to speed up the kinds of clean energy projects Democrats hope to see built under the Inflation Reduction Act.
“If I thought it was going to be harmful for the climate, I would have never done it,” he told reporters last week, according to The Hill. “There’s people talking about hydrogen plants, we’re talking about small nuclear reactors, we’re talking about solar farms and wind farms, but we have to have the fossil horsepower that we need right now to run the country.”
Environmental groups are lashing out against the permitting plan. And while it might come as a welcome set of proposals in Republican states with economies that depend heavily on industries like oil and gas drilling and mining, it’s likely to get a far cooler reception from elected leaders in Democratic-leaning states that have rejected projects like gas pipelines and coal terminals in recent years under federal permitting processes.
Grijalva and the other House lawmakers wrote in their letter to Pelosi that attaching the changes to the so-called continuing resolution would force members to choose between protecting “communities from further pollution or funding the government.”
“The permitting and public notice and comment provisions mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are among the only tools local communities have to force careful review of federal projects that may have serious, long-term, environmental, and public health consequences in those communities,” the letter said, referring to one of the nation’s bedrock environmental permitting laws.
“Attempts to short-circuit or undermine the law in the name of ‘reform’ must be opposed,” the lawmakers added.
But Schumer appears to be unswayed by the opposition within his own party. Speaking at a press conference, as he was about to head to a White House celebration of the Inflation Reduction Act, the top Senate Democrat said he is sticking to the deal.
Republicans have put forward their own proposal that would take a more aggressive approach to reworking environmental permitting regulations.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unveiled a bill Monday supported by 38 Republican senators that would, among other things, restore changes the Trump administration made to the National Environmental Policy Act. The GOP lawmakers say the reforms are needed to avoid slowing projects being built with funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Reforming NEPA has been a high priority for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the building industry, who backed a push by Senate Republicans last month to undo major changes the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality announced in April, which returned the rules to how they were before the Trump administration revised them in 2020.
Manchin’s proposal would not go as far as the GOP plan. A draft bill and a one-page summary of the changes he wants, made public by House Democrats, call for limiting the measure to projects used to “produce, generate, store, or transport energy,” or “to capture, remove, transport, or store carbon dioxide;” or “to mine, extract, beneficiate, or process minerals.”
Beyond setting the two-year limit on permitting, the plan would reduce the time period allowed for public comments about proposed projects and limit the ability of community groups to block projects in court. It would also designate 25 energy infrastructure projects as high-priority and require the federal government to give them a special focus in granting permits.
Additionally, the deal would require agencies to “take all necessary actions” to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline natural gas pipeline across Manchin’s home state of West Virginia and Virginia.
Last month, 650 environmental groups expressed opposition to Manchin’s permitting push in a letter to Schumer and Pelosi. They said it would ease the path for fossil fuel projects like the natural gas pipeline in West Virginia and weaken the ability of minority and low-income communities to fight back against projects that they see as harmful.
“This legislation would truncate and hollow-out the environmental review process, weaken Tribal consultations, and make it far harder for frontline communities to have their voices heard,” the groups wrote.
The proposal, for instance, would only give groups 150 days to challenge the federal approval of a project, said Naadiya Hutchinson, government affairs manager for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an environmental justice organization that signed the letter.
Many grassroots groups in low-income areas would not be able to meet that deadline, “because they likely do not have the budgets to have attorneys on stand by,” she added in an interview.
Manchin’s proposal also comes as progressive groups have been pushing to strengthen federal permitting requirements through the Environmental Justice for All Act, proposed by Grijalva and Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Virginia Democrat.
That bill would take steps like requiring federal agencies to more strongly involve affected communities in NEPA permitting and to consider the “cumulative impacts” on health when deciding whether to approve projects under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Hutchinson, with WE ACT, said that Manchin’s proposal “goes in the opposite direction of what environmental justice communities have been advocating for.” The environmental groups also described tying it to a bill needed to keep the government running as “morally abhorrent.”