Let America Build

The Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant legislative effort to affect our planet’s atmosphere in the history of human government, is now law. What’s next?

On Tuesday, October 11th, Humanity Forward had the honor of hosting an expert panel on the future of America’s fight against climate change. In particular, we focused on America’s accelerating push to tackle the climate crisis, and how reforming the way various government agencies permit new construction projects may be key to unleashing America’s incredible potential to solve this century’s greatest challenge.

The panel was entitled Let America Build, after Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy’s climate/energy plank of the same name.

The premise of this plank itself was intriguing. Why, or what, can’t America build now? Examining the scale needed to address climate change, what are the major obstacles to a new construction boom? How do we maximize the effects of tax subsidies, mobilize private capital, and pave the way through natural lands, aging infrastructure, or recalcitrant landowners to construct the transmission lines, wind turbines, and solar farms needed to get to net-zero emissions by 2050? And how do we shift the dynamic of environmental topics out of a 20th-century tree-hugging mindset to one that takes our whole planet and entire libraries of math into account?

The panel that took on these tough questions featured the following experts:

  • Dr. Danny Richter, former VP of Government Affairs at Citizens’ Climate Lobby (moderator)
  • Alex Flint, Executive Director at the Alliance for Market Solutions
  • Alec Stapp, Co-founder, Institute for Progress
  • Quillan Robinson, Vice President of Government Affairs, American Conservation Coalition
  • Devin Hartman, Director, Energy and Environmental Policy, R Street

Alex Flint took on the role of setting the stage for the permitting reform fight. While the American energy supply is strengthened by its diversity, our politics have largely constrained the development of the grid and left us unprepared to replace the 79% of our power supplied by fossil fuel. Further, he noted the danger in Europe of running out of energy this winter, suggesting people may freeze to death. To this, he offered hope that realism is forcing changes in US politics, where climate and energy are equally considered. He touted the need for LNG deployment to help our allies abroad, and for a construction boom to produce clean energy at home. This will, he noted, necessitate a reconsideration of what property rights actually mean. He called for a full re-evaluation of the National Gas Act, the Federal Power Act, NEPA, and ESA, hopefully in a consistent way that Congress could approve in one vote.

Quill Robinson pointed out that the environmental movement began in the 1970s to stop “rivers from catching on fire.” He made the case that Republicans have an opportunity now to apply their principles to a changed dynamic where stopping projects is no longer the pro-environment strategy – allowing Republicans to pitch free-market-led infrastructure development as a climate solution. He further pointed out that Republicans engaging in solving climate change will create that “iron sharpens iron” dynamic, in which both parties chase climate voters, sharpening their proposals, messaging, and policy prescriptions in a way that will advance the cause significantly faster. He suggested that locals should share in the economic development and benefits brought by projects that cross through their communities, to soften opposition.

Devin Hartman noted the flaws in measuring American climate efforts simply by dollars, suggesting the backlog of projects stuck in permitting purgatory is already overwhelmingly renewable energy projects. These reviews take far too long, facing long blockades by onerous, bad-faith lawsuits. To this he stated (and others agreed on) the need to frontload opposition from local landowners, limiting the timeframe in which such lawsuits can halt a project at all, without necessarily limiting the scope of precedent to prevent construction (i.e. not weakening environmental laws). He further identified the need for integrating our grids with significantly more transmission lines, suggesting this would help investors see more certainty in the energy market, mobilizing private capital to push through where government dollars are lazily circling the drain.

Alec Stapp offered some context and stats to appeal to progressives and their goals. For example, he noted that while progressives have habitually opposed all natural gas pipelines, those lines often directly replace oil and coal use, meaning that these blockades are actually preventing emissions reductions. Further to that, he pointed out that most infrastructure in existence is already made for fossil fuels, and thus most of the construction that needs to happen is for renewable energy, making permitting reform today far better (indeed, necessary) for the environment than it would have been in the last century. In particular, he noted the difficulty for investors in the lack of certainty if for example they spent large sums of money and spent years on a project that a single 11th-hour lawsuit can nix. This, he says, chills the market, while offering little environmental protection.

The four panelists discussed the motivations of corporations and utilities, and how most of them seem to be moving in the right direction. Moreover, they discussed how measures beyond permitting reform would be necessary to meet our climate goals, discussing integration with our allies and global markets, political will, and carbon pricing.

All in all, it was a highly informative discussion about an issue that has complicated political and policy dynamics. Observers will be surprised how much the panelists agreed, despite differing political backgrounds and the divisive nature of the issue in Congress or among opposing activists. You can’t get a faster crash course on permitting reform than our Let America Build Webinar. Watch it here.