One thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on these days is that electricity transmission lines are essential and valuable. Pursuant to provisions in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Department of Energy now operates a $2.5 billion revolving fund to “spur valuable new lines that otherwise would not get built.” However, local, state, and federal permitting requirements still make this nearly impossible.
So with an excruciatingly frustrating nod to George Orwell, the government is subsidizing new transmission lines to overcome government limits on building new transmission lines.
To state the painfully obvious, it would make more sense to change the regulations and forego the subsidies. The current discussion in Washington about the need for permitting reform has yielded numerous studies and, to our elected officials’ credit, some legislative efforts.
But none of those efforts are adequate because, fundamentally, building new things requires limiting the rights of people leveraging local, state, and federal processes to block development, and policymakers are reluctant to constrain NIMBYism. It is easier for them to keep onerous regulatory requirements and pay developers to overcome those requirements.
Therefore, we do not need another permitting reform proposal. We need a process that enables us to achieve reform—one that recognizes the realities of our democracy.
Fortunately, we have done this before. My favorite example is the process we established to close excess military bases at the end of the Cold War. We created the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission to assess our military base needs. If it determined some needed to be closed, it submitted a list to Congress for an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate. The BRAC commission submitted five lists to Congress, and each list was approved.
Imagine a commission that could assess permitting reform needs and then submit proposals to Congress for up-or-down votes. Not only would this avoid the recent rifle-shot proposals to fix a specific aspect of permitting, but a commission could evaluate all the issues and submit comprehensive proposals accordingly. Imagine a proposal that addresses the need for new offshore wind farms, CO2 or natural gas pipelines, nuclear waste disposal, and high-speed rail. And if a commission submitted such proposals every few years for Congress to vote on, we might finally get the new energy and infrastructure our country needs, and without subsidies that burden our economy.
The reality is that our current legislative process is not going to produce the permitting reforms we need. We need a new process and know we can create one.