For a Clean-Energy Future, We Need Deregulation
February 17, 2022
Interesting opinion piece from the WSJ. I agree that the environmental traps that projects need to run in the US are Byzantine. I also think in our society if the perfect solution we’re to hit us in the face, we’d still find ways to not implement it. Should the government just step back and let the market find the solution? Kodak comes to mind for me. Our corporations are run — ok , almost all — by executives who have their eyes on the next quarter. “More now is better”
My problem is I don’t trust the government nor the free market to get it right.
Environmental protections from decades past are blocking the infrastructure urgently needed to combat climate change In Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, local environmentalists and devotees of the Burning Man festival are using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to oppose a geothermal energy plant. Further south, the Sierra Club has joined with all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts to stop development of what would be the nation’s largest solar farm, which it says threatens endangered tortoises. Along the Atlantic seaboard, plans for major offshore wind farms have been hogtied by provisions of the Jones Act, an obscure law that requires maritime cargo to be transported exclusively by U.S.-flagged ships when it is shipped between domestic ports. It is an obstacle that may ultimately prove beside the point because proposals to develop wind energy in American coastal regions have also faced a constant barrage of NEPA and Endangered Species Act (ESA) lawsuits designed to stop them.
The problem isn’t limited to renewable energy. In California, environmentalists have used a state law designed to protect fish eggs as a pretext to close the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, the state’s largest source of clean energy, while the California Environmental Quality Act has hobbled efforts to build both high-speed rail and high-voltage transmission lines that the state is counting on to meet its climate commitments. In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission peremptorily rejected last month the application of the first advanced nuclear reactor developer to seek a license before the commission, to cheers from leading environmental groups.
Across the country, foundational laws established in the 1960s and 70s to protect the environment are today a major obstacle to efforts to build the infrastructure and energy systems that we need to safeguard public health and save the climate. Though the Biden administration and Democrats currently propose to spend close to a trillion dollars on low-carbon infrastructure and technology, there is little reason to believe the U.S. is capable of building any of it in a timely or cost-effective way. Indeed, far from clearing a path for the construction of a low-carbon, clean-energy economy, Democrats and environmentalists propose to add still more bureaucratic and regulatory requirements to the already Kafkaesque process of building any major energy or infrastructure project. President Biden’s landmark executive order on environmental justice, for example, has directed every federal agency to screen all new infrastructure and clean-energy spending for disparate racial impact while carving out 40% of all spending for marginalized communities. Congress, meanwhile, has produced complicated formulas to guide its proposed new clean-energy investments in order to encourage the use of union labor and to achieve various other wage and occupational outcomes.
Greater equity and inclusion and more high-wage jobs are laudable goals, but these new policies are sure to make the already slow, costly business of building new infrastructure and energy projects even slower and more costly. And make no mistake, such projects are already shockingly difficult to build. Merely completing an environmental-impact statement for infrastructure projects now takes almost five years on average. The implications are daunting for efforts to make progress against climate change. To reach “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades, the best current modeling suggests that the U.S. will need to triple its existing transmission infrastructure for electricity in order to carry power from wind and solar farms and other renewable sources. Yet, over the last decade, the U.S. hasn’t constructed a single major new transmission line.
Today’s thicket of environmental regulation thwarts permitting, siting, construction and operation of virtually every class of new infrastructure and technology.
Other analyses, more pessimistic about renewable energy and our ability to build a massive continental electricity grid to support it, assume instead that the nation will produce close to half its electricity with a new generation of small modular nuclear reactors. But since its founding in 1975, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never licensed a new commercial nuclear reactor design that was subsequently built. The two most recent developers to try, Westinghouse and Nuscale, have been at it for well over a decade and have yet to generate a single electron.
Environmentalists have long argued that tackling climate change will require regulations to discourage fossil-fuel use, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program. In reality, there is no plausible path to a low-carbon economy without a serious deregulatory program. Today’s thicket of environmental regulation at the federal and state levels thwarts permitting, siting, construction and operation of virtually every class of new infrastructure and technology. There are simply too many veto points and opportunities for obstruction, at too many procedural and jurisdictional levels, to conceivably embark on a rapid mission to remake the nation’s energy economy. Past Democratic administrations have made halfhearted “surgical” attempts to fast-track targeted infrastructure, such as wind and solar projects on public lands, without running afoul of their environmental supporters. Republicans, for their part, have made headline-grabbing proposals to repeal the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, without much follow through, while simultaneously opposing eminent domain and the ability of federal authorities to pre-empt local control over issues like siting and permitting. In the not unlikely event that Republicans take control of Congress after the midterm elections, they could strike a blow for taxpayers and the climate by leading an effort to reform the nation’s broken approach to building critical infrastructure. They should start with an overhaul of the NEPA, the ESA, the Jones Act and a range of other regulations in order to make them more compatible with the need to dramatically cut emissions. Another priority should be to change the NRC’s mandate so that it balances public safety with the public’s interest in building nuclear power plants to produce clean and affordable energy.
To make a practical difference on the ground, Congress would also need to make federal spending on infrastructure and clean energy conditional on state-level reform of environmental review and permitting policies. Federal taxpayers should not send billions of dollars to the states every year without a reasonable expectation that the funded infrastructure will be built in a timely and cost-effective way. Climate advocates and Democrats who are more concerned with fighting climate change and building a prosperous clean-energy future than with defending outmoded green regulatory policies would do well to support these reforms. Republicans who are as serious about protecting taxpayers as about settling scores with environmentalists will recognize that local control must have limits when state officials are also asking the federal government to foot the bill. Will there be environmental costs to clearing away the detritus of decades of environmental regulatory policies? Without question. Some ill-conceived projects will get the green light, and those projects may have a negative impact on local environments. But we have a range of other legal tools to protect our most valuable environmental resources, from federal authority to protect public lands to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
The U.S. can no longer continue to neglect its compounding infrastructure and clean-energy needs. We aren’t going to regulate our way to a thriving low-carbon economy and a more stable climate. America needs to get back to building again.
—Mr. Nordhaus is the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute.
His bio from Wikipedia:
Ted Nordhaus (born 1966) is an American author and the director of research at The Breakthrough Institute. He has co-edited and written a number of books, including Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (2007) and An Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015) with collaborator Michael Shellenberger.
The two were described by Slate as "ecomodernists," while the authors have described themselves as the "bad boys" of environmentalism. Like Shellenberger, Nordhaus generally advocates for increased use of natural resources through an embrace of modernization, technological development, and increasing U.S. capital accumulation, usually through a combination of nuclear power and urbanization. Many of his positions have been debated by environmental scientists and academics.