The debt ceiling agreement moves the pipeline forward and changes environmental rules. But there is still work to do.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite weeks of negotiations, the White House and House Republicans have been unable to reach a comprehensive agreement to overhaul environmental regulations and streamline federal permits as part of their agreement on the debt ceiling, contenting itself instead with limited changes that could simplify certain project reviews .

The final legislation, approved by the House Wednesday night, includes provisions to fast-track infrastructure projects under the landmark National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. However, it does not pave the way for the construction of large-scale power lines, instead ordering a two-year study into the matter.

One project got special treatment: The legislation essentially guarantees construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a $6.6 billion project to transport natural gas through Appalachia. The White House backed the plan despite objections from environmentalists as a concession to Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who was a key vote for last year’s sweeping legislation that included major investments in programs climatic.

Asked about the pipeline on Wednesday, President Joe Biden smiled but did not respond.

The failure to agree on a more drastic overhaul of the authorization rules was not a complete surprise, given the complexity of the subject and the tight deadline for the talks due to the threat of a historic default on the country’s debt.

But the result leaves an important item on Biden’s legislative to-do list. Administration officials warn that the years-long permitting process for infrastructure projects needs to be streamlined if the country is to build enough transmission lines and clean energy projects to reach ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

“We’ve done a little work here, but we’ll have to do more later,” White House Budget Director Shalanda Young, a lead negotiator of the budget deal, told reporters this week. “We all have a stake in making these projects move faster.”

Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said “the agreement makes it slightly easier to build clean energy projects, but there is still a long way to go to accelerate this transition and protect communities from environmental damage”.

It will not be easy to do more, despite widespread interest in the subject on the part of both parties. Republicans see an opportunity to pave the way for more oil and gas development, while environmentalists and some Democrats are hesitant to relax natural habitat protections or encourage the continued use of fossil fuels.

Even the limited provisions of the budget agreement represent the first significant changes to NEPA in nearly four decades. They would designate a federal agency to design and schedule environmental reviews for each project, and they would shorten the timeframe for environmental assessments.

Agencies would have one year to complete most reviews, and projects deemed to have complex environmental impacts must be reviewed within two years. The White House described the legislation as making improvements to the licensing process while leaving basic protections intact.

However, some environmentalists were quick to criticize the deal. Jean Su, director of the energy justice program at the Center for Biological Diversity, argued that the legislation would allow more projects to escape scrutiny and limit the public’s ability to provide information about pipelines and other projects. of fossil fuels.

“Republicans got exactly what they wanted,” she said. “There is a severe setback in our environmental reviews.”

Senator John Hickenlooper, a Democrat from Colorado, said he was disappointed that more progress had not been made in improving transmission lines and upgrading the nation’s power grid to accommodate more renewable energies such as wind and solar energy. He is working on legislation on this subject.

“I don’t think we got what I hoped to get,” he said of the final deal. “I feel like we gave up a little more than I would have liked to give up.”

Hickenlooper said “we’ll go back to the drawing boards” on the permit, adding that “we know we have to if we really want to move towards a clean energy economy.”

Representative Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois, criticized the decision to study the expansion of transmission lines rather than rationalize their construction.

“We don’t need to waste taxpayers’ money telling us what we already know: if we are to realize the full economic, reliable and environmental benefits of the Cut Inflation Act, we must increase the rate at which we deploy power transmission,” says Casten.

Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana who was on the negotiating team, said House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had made a commitment to Biden to continue discussions on pipelines and transmission, ” but it will be a holistic discussion”.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, another Louisiana Republican, said the budget deal will help limit the ability of outside groups to repeatedly sue to stop or delay needed infrastructure projects.

“So many people are bogged down in the licensing process and have been begging Congress for help,” he said. “This bill brings real relief.”

Scalise said it was important to designate a single agency to lead licensing reviews and put a basketball-style “timer” on finishing documents. “It’s really, really important to say that there will be an end in sight.”

The decision to isolate the Mountain Valley Pipeline has frustrated Democrats and environmentalists who either oppose the project or don’t want to bypass the permitting process. Although much of the construction has been completed, it has been embroiled in lawsuits and environmental assessments.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said the project’s inclusion in the budget deal was “sticky” and he plans to submit an amendment to remove the pipeline from the legislation.

“It shouldn’t be members of Congress who put their thumbs up,” he said.

Rep. Jared Huffman, a longtime California Democrat on the House natural resources panel, also described the pipeline as a “White House-Manchin production.” He said “it makes it a lot harder for Democrats to swallow.”

Manchin said the White House, since “the president,” understands the importance of the Mountain Valley pipeline.

“They all recognize that we need to have more energy. We need to have more natural gas in the mix,’ Manchin told West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre downplayed the impact of legislation on the Mountain Valley pipeline, which opponents say would emit the equivalent climate pollution from 23 coal-fired power plants and erode forest lands along the 303-mile pipeline route.

Biden’s assent to the pipeline follows his March endorsement of the massive Willow oil project in Alaska, another source of frustration for environmental groups that have mostly backed the Democratic president.

The pipeline “was going to move forward with or without this bill,” Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.

She defended the deal saying “it preserves the biggest investment in climate protection we’ve seen in history.” House Republicans originally proposed eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars in clean energy tax credits and other spending in the Cut Inflation Act approved last year by congressional Democrats . These cuts were not included in the final package.

The compromise is something “congressional Democrats can be proud of and will also accelerate those clean energy promises,” Jean-Pierre said.


Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Mary Clare Jalonick and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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