FILE - Wind Farm Ocean Power Energy Sea Offshore Turbines

Offshore wind energy lease sales are proposed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. 

Proponents of the Inflation Reduction Act are ecstatic about the massive bill's pro-climate provisions, including tax credits for clean energy and electric vehicles. But the real work to make clean energy possible is still underway. If these tax credits are ever to be converted into real clean energy projects, Congress will have to make real progress on permitting reform. Thankfully, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has a permitting reform bill that could be the key to unlocking America’s clean energy potential.

The National Environmental Protection Act’s (NEPA) environmental review requirements are an environmental disaster. Many clean energy projects get caught up in review periods that last 4.5 years on average. Five offshore wind projects were indefinitely delayed in 2020 due to permitting troubles. The Clean Line Energy project, which would carry wind energy across much of the country, has been stuck in permitting battles for years. These delays raise the costs of clean energy and only hinder America’s fight against climate change.

Manchin's proposed reforms would streamline the creation of new clean energy projects by reducing the amount of time they spend in the permitting phase. The bill won’t be on the table until September, and the available details are still sparse. Reports from the Washington Post, however, reveal that the bill includes provisions to prioritize projects of “national importance,” set maximum timelines for NEPA reviews, and limit litigation for energy projects.

Environmental groups were quick to denounce these permitting reforms, claiming they were an “attack” on environmental review, a process many environmentalists see as their greatest asset. Many environmentalists view this bill simply as a way for Manchin to push through fossil fuel projects in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, with special provisions in the bill for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. These criticisms ignore the greater risk the environmental review process poses to new clean energy development.

The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) was a landmark win for environmentalists in the 1970s. The law has been used by environmentalists for decades to block environmentally destructive projects through environmental impact statements (EIS) and environmental assessments (EA). EIS and EAs have been used to slow down potentially harmful development projects by requiring developers to outline potential environmental damages that may be incurred as well as the remedies they will pursue. NEPA has remained largely identical since the 1970s, which has created a major barrier to clean energy production in the US.

Manchin’s permitting reform bill would limit the amount of time these reviews can be litigated, ensuring projects are able to break ground.

If environmentalists are serious about the need for a clean energy transition, then permitting reform must be on the table. America’s clean energy projects are being stalled by an outdated and abused environmental review process. The best reform may not look exactly like Manchin’s bill, but Manchin’s bill is a fine place to start.

Elijah Gullett is a Young Voices contributor and the branch leader for American Conservation Coalition’s Raleigh-Durham, NC branch.