Friday Focus:  NEPA Biggest Roadblock To Clean Energy Infrastructure

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Today’s Key Takeaway: “NEPA’s defenders are wrong. Simply put, we don’t get enough value from NEPA reviews to justify their cost, and NEPA is overwhelmingly used by public interest groups to stop useful infrastructure from being built.[3]

No, NEPA really is a problem for clean energy

A guest post by Aidan Mackenzie and Santi Ruiz

Decarbonizing the U.S. economy will require building a vast amount of green energy production and transmission infrastructure. This is simply a fact; a massive rapid build-out is not optional. Last December, I read a whole lot about the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law that many allege is holding back green energy deployment by allowing local interests to tie up green energy projects in court. My general conclusion was that although NEPA’s defenders made the occasional good point, the vast bulk of the evidence was in favor of major NEPA reform. Other countries use strong bureaucracies to make sure development projects follow environmental laws; the U.S. is practically the only country to allow local NIMBYs the opportunity to tie up fully legally compliant projects in court for years over purely procedural requirements.

But progressive advocates of green industrial policy have been stubbornly slow to realize that NEPA stands in the way of their dreams. This May the Roosevelt Institute, a pro-industrial-policy think tank with a great deal of influence in the Biden administration, published a full-throated defense of NEPA. I had been meaning to write a rebuttal to that piece, but before I could get around to it, the good folks at the Institute for Progress asked me if they could write a guest post rebutting the Roosevelt Institute. Naturally, I said yet. This post, by Aidan Mackenzie and Santi Ruiz, explains four reasons the NEPA defenders’ arguments miss the mark.

The United States is set to invest upwards of $540 billion in clean energy infrastructure over the next decade.[1] But major infrastructure projects will be roadblocked by NEPA’s environmental review, a process that takes 4.5 years and thousands of pages on average to clear.[2]

NEPA’s defenders dispute this. “Research doesn’t substantiate the claim that NEPA’s procedures cause significant delays in renewable projects,” claims a recent policy brief from the Roosevelt Institute. They argue that NEPA slows down projects for good reason, and that slowdowns are a necessary side effect of the democratic process. They also worry that loosening NEPA will let oil and gas companies and other polluters run rampant. In their view, NEPA’s delays are relatively minor, and real roadblocks for clean energy lie elsewhere: in limited agency staffing capacity, and the difficulty of building cross-state electrical transmission.

But NEPA’s defenders are wrong: the law does block clean energy. While transmission and agency capacity are important, neither is sufficient to accelerate infrastructure projects. Simply put, we don’t get enough value from NEPA reviews to justify their cost, and NEPA is overwhelmingly used by public interest groups to stop useful infrastructure from being built.[3]

Defenders of NEPA have in many cases relied on non-representative data or specious claims. To some extent, it’s understandable: It’s difficult to obtain comprehensive data on the NEPA process. No one maintains a centralized database of all NEPA reviews, and data reporting varies greatly across individual agencies. The debate over permitting reform has tended to center on specific topics for which modeling is easy and compelling, like electricity transmission. Accordingly, NEPA defenders tend to downplay its harms by glossing over harmful mechanisms. In particular, they tend to use datasets that don’t capture the full scope of NEPA, ignore how litigation risks from NEPA slow down all projects, and fail to understand that NEPA will harm clean energy even more than traditional energy sources going forward.

But the data we do have tells a clear story. NEPA creates a major roadblock to building new energy infrastructure, and that infrastructure will be disproportionately clean.When NEPA’s defenders dispute this, they’re missing some key points about the law.