US renewables joins Big Oil in fighting delays to project approvals

The renewables industry in America has formed a surprising alliance with Big Oil to lobby Congress for a change in the permitting process, which they claim stymies new energy development.

In recent weeks, the campaign has intensified as oil and clean-energy lobbyists hope that negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on the debt ceiling will offer an opportunity to reach a deal regarding permitting reform.

In the past few months, all of the major associations have looked at each other and realized that we are all arguing for the exact same thing,” said Jason Grumet. Grumet is the head of the American Clean Power Association (the leading renewables industry association), who led a 200-member delegation to Congress to demand reform this week.

Big Wind and Big Solar are at the table to say that they want to move forward.

The coordinated push by unlikely bedfellows highlights widespread frustration in the energy industry over the failure to streamline the permit system. This is especially true of the long review process and the avenues for lawsuits offered by the National Environmental Policy Act from 1970.

Representatives from the oil, gas and renewable energy industries have said that they are holding daily discussions about their approach to allowing reform. They also stated that a joint delegation to Capitol Hill is likely to be made in the near future.

The hope is that reforms will be implemented as part of an agreement on the debt ceiling, though those involved in the negotiations said such a compromise was still far away.

Several pieces of legislation were proposed by conservative Republicans, progressive Democratic legislators and Joe Manchin. The centrist Democrat’s efforts to pass a allowing bill after the Inflation Reduction Act was unsuccessful.

Raul Garcia is vice-president for policy and legislation of Earthjustice. He said that the question was, where did the political middle ground lie? He said that the differences were stark.

Mike Somers, the head of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the most powerful lobbying group in Washington for Big Oil, said: “We want to be united when it comes time to negotiate a deal.” We believe the debt limit agreement could be used as a tool to allow reform. “But the clock is ticking.”

Eric Grey, vice president of government relations for the Edison Electric Institute (which represents large utilities), said that a “coalition”, consisting of different sectors of the energy sector, had been formed. “We all have the same goal in mind when it comes to efficiency gains.”

Gregory Wetstone is the chief executive officer of the American Council on Renewable Energy (a Washington-based business group). He said that his organisation spoke “sometimes” to fossil fuel companies about permits, but warned that these industries are not always in agreement.

Wetstone said, “I believe there could be a compromise but climate change is the fundamental driving force behind this effort.” “So that will mean that some elements are going to more complex than others.”

The oil and gas industry has been unhappy with the long permitting process for years. The IRA has injected $369bn in clean energy through tax credits and subsidies. Renewables developers have said that their development plans have hit a brick wall.

Developers say that it is difficult to build thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines to transport electricity from renewable resources to urban areas.

The Princeton University academics have stated that unless the transmission expansion rate is doubled, the IRA may be up to 80 percent less effective at reducing emissions.

Now that the IRA is in place, there’s no longer any uncertainty about accessing capital or the policy on tax credits. “The pacing issue is really transmission,” said Mark Goodwin. He’s the chief executive at Apex Clean Energy.

In the meantime, oil and gas executives say that it is almost impossible to build large pipelines in certain parts of the nation, as activists successfully use the legal system to stop new projects. Gas producers say that the lengthy permitting process will prevent the development of some the most prolific deposits in the world, which could support increased exports to Europe.

ConocoPhillips’ chief executive, Ryan Lance, said: “This infrastructure is not designed to be built quickly. It’s just not designed to do so.”

Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia who led a reform effort last year, failed after facing widespread opposition from both the progressive wing in his party, which branded it ‘a giveaway to fossil fuel industry,’ and Republicans, who were still stinging from Manchin supporting the IRA.

Executives are hopeful that a compromise will be possible now that the Republican-led House of Representatives produced their own legislation.

Hardliners from both sides will oppose any agreement. Many environmentalists are against any legislation which would weaken Nepa rules and make it easier for fossil fuel infrastructure to be built, despite the benefits of renewables.

Garcia said, “You can still create clean energy even if you roll back these protections.” Giving even a small amount of land to fossil fuel companies is a mistake. This goes against the lofty rhetoric that we have heard from the Biden Administration.”

Such a position, say renewables developers, would hinder the deployment of clean technologies that are needed to reduce emissions.

Grumet, ACP’s Director of Communications said: “With the current system it will be impossible to achieve even a close solution to climate change.” “Whether coalitions come about because of inspiration or necessity, is a philosophical issue — I believe this is both.”