How Environmental Standards Could Become a Casualty of the Debt Ceiling Standoff

A deal to raise the debt ceiling could include faster permitting for fossil fuel projects

By Grace van Deelen

May 25, 2023

President Joe Biden meets with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., to discuss the debt limit in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, May 22, 2023, in Washington.

President Joe Biden meets with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to discuss the debt limit on May 22. | Photo by Alex Brandon/AP

Facing an impending deadline to avoid defaulting on the United States’ debts, congressional Republican leaders and the White House are racing to clinch a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Failing to do so could be disastrous for the economy. Government workers and Social Security recipients would go unpaid, the US would risk losing its high credit rating, and a recession would be likely.

President Biden has called the Republican flirtation with government default “reckless hostage-taking.” In order to release the hostage of the United States’ full faith and credit, House Republicans are demanding that Congress gut the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock of US environmental law. The current House Republican plan for lifting the debt ceiling includes a proposal that would water down NEPA’s environmental reviews for energy projects like oil pipelines and methane gas facilities.  

Tell your public officials in Washington to reject the manufactured debt ceiling crisis and to stand up and work for solutions that protect people, not polluters.

Progressive Democrats in Congress and environmental advocates warn that it’s a raw deal. They say that any debt ceiling bargain that weakens NEPA will come at the expense of communities living near future fossil fuel projects.

“It’s a very scary time right now,” said Natalie Mebane, the climate director at Greenpeace USA. Rolling back NEPA requirements is “a green light for so many more disastrous projects, projects that pollute communities that have already faced environmental destruction and environmental racism,” she said.

In recent months, some voices on Capitol Hill have floated the idea of changing how energy projects are approved in order to speed the completion of electricity transmission lines and generating facilities. While Republicans want faster permitting of new fossil fuel projects, some Democrats want to quickly improve clean energy infrastructure to meet President Biden’s goal of generating 80 percent of the nation’s electricity with renewable sources by 2030.

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, made billions of dollars available to improve clean energy infrastructure. Despite the new funding for clean energy projects, the permitting process has slowed potential progress, as new transmission systems (which connect energy projects to the electricity grid) can’t move forward without a series of impact studies. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the number of uncompleted clean energy projects waiting to be connected to the grid is on the rise. At the end of last year, enough clean energy projects to power about 200,000 US households for a year were still waiting for connection.

But many green groups warn that the idea of “permitting reform” is really an effort to undermine long-standing environmental protections—only now dressed up in the greenwashing of climate action.

Shortly after House Republicans proposed the energy-permitting deal last week, dozens of environmental advocacy groups sent a letter to the American Clean Power Association, a trade organization, to urge it to oppose any policy proposals that limit environmental review requirements for energy projects.

“So-called permitting reforms currently being debated in Washington include direct assaults on our nation’s bedrock environmental laws and the few processes that allow our communities to have a voice in projects that directly impact our health and environment,” the groups wrote. “Gutting the National Environmental Protection Act and other protections not only puts our air, water, and climate at risk but also the health and safety of our families.”

Mebane said environmental advocates are especially concerned that the Republicans’ proposed deal would put even more pressure on communities already dealing with pollution from the fossil fuel industry, such as the Gulf Coast, where multiple export facilities to liquefy and ship methane gas overseas currently wait to be built.

Government agencies’ lack of resources to complete NEPA requirements, rather than the actual law itself, is what’s holding up new clean energy projects, said Mahyar Sorour, director of Beyond Fossil Fuels Policy at the Sierra Club. “The way that we ensure the projects can move faster is to put forward funding into the agencies to really do the NEPA review process more effectively,” she said.

The latest efforts to include energy permitting in the debt ceiling deal are “a misguided attempt to use a false narrative in order to strike down and weaken the law that many corporations have been after for decades,” Mebane said.

The Republicans’ proposed deal comes on the heels of a permitting bill introduced by Joe Manchin, the Democratic West Virginia senator, earlier this month that included setting a two-year limit for permitting review under NEPA and requiring just one environmental review for projects seeking permitting. Last year, an identical energy-permitting bill from Manchin failed to pass.

Some Democrats who are open to the idea of tweaking NEPA worry that the Republican deal doesn’t go far enough to promote clean energy projects. According to Politico, Republicans’ proposed deal would require Democrats to wait for later legislation to address their top permitting priorities, such as approving the new transmission lines to connect new renewable electricity projects to the energy grid. For that reason, Democrats are wary of accepting the deal.

“They must think we’re really, really stupid,” Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s permitting task force, told The Washington Post in response to the deal. “I mean, that’s not a serious proposal.”

Senate Environment and Public Works chair Tom Carper is working on an alternative deal that would only overhaul the permitting process for projects related to climate mitigation and resilience. “Importantly, our bill would improve the permitting process without undermining our nation’s bedrock environmental protections,” Carper said in a statement.

Other progressive Democrats are opposed to any deal that rolls back NEPA’s environmental protections. Eighty-three Democrats have sent a letter to President Biden, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asking them to reject any deals that alter NEPA.

“NEPA is one of the strongest tools local communities have for protecting themselves against major environmental and public health consequences of federal projects, including energy infrastructure development,” Democrats wrote in the letter. “Gutting our bedrock environmental laws should not be a condition for paying our bills.”