WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, May 17, 2023, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee held a hearing on federal actions to improve coordination, predictability, and efficiency in the environmental review and permitting process.
Below is the opening statement of Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:
“We are here today to revisit opportunities for improving our environmental review and permitting processes in ways that support the deployment of clean energy projects and good-paying jobs across our country.
“Today is our committee’s second hearing in two months to chart a path forward on permitting reform legislation and finish the job we’ve begun. And, what do I mean by ‘finish the job’? I mean build on the work we started last Congress when we passed—thanks to the leadership of our President and the members of this committee—a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and the largest investment ever to address the threat of climate change.
“In addition to helping us tackle the climate crisis and reduce harmful pollution, these historic investments are already creating hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs here at home while helping our nation become even more competitive globally. Still, in order to make these clean energy investments a reality today, we first need to take a serious look at our current permitting processes.
“During our first permitting hearing three weeks ago, we learned that our nation currently has two terawatts of clean energy power sitting on the sidelines, waiting to be connected to our electric grid. We also learned at the first hearing that many communities still do not have a seat at the table, and they need to be heard during the permitting process.
“I believe we can do better, and we must do better. Fortunately, President Biden agrees, as do many of our colleagues.
“As I said during that first hearing, I believe that a successful permitting reform proposal must accomplish three objectives. First, any serious proposal must reduce greenhouse gas emissions and uphold our nation's bedrock environmental statutes. That includes addressing transmission barriers that make it harder for renewables to connect to the grid. Second, that proposal must support early and meaningful community engagement. And, third, the legislation must provide businesses with the certainty and predictability they need to make informed long-term decisions.
“During that hearing, we were fortunate to hear from a diverse panel of stakeholders representing industry and environmental groups. While our witnesses did not see eye to eye on everything, all five of them agreed about the importance of engaging with communities early on and protecting our environment as we work to improve permitting efficiency. And, if I’m not mistaken, I believe our Ranking Member also embraced this theme after hearing our witness testimony.
“In fact, most if not all of the stakeholders we have met with throughout the past several months have acknowledged that it is not necessary to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In other words, we can achieve efficiencies without gutting any existing laws, and that’s what we need to do!
“Unfortunately, a number of recent proposals—mostly from some of our House colleagues—aim to streamline the permitting process using very blunt tools and set up what I believe is a false choice. If enacted, they may well strip away bedrock environmental protections under laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. And, some of them would curtail, or in certain cases, outright eliminate the ability to seek judicial review of agency decisions.
“It is my heartfelt belief that we can provide businesses and communities with greater certainty by using a more targeted approach. And, I hope that’s exactly what we will do.
“As Chair Mallory will point out in her testimony today, NEPA helps inform roughly 100,000 federal agency actions and decisions each year. Around 200 projects a year require an environmental impact statement—the most comprehensive type of environmental analysis. That said, more than 95 percent of projects needing approval receive that approval under the most expedited form of environmental review—known as a categorical exclusion.
“Even with this success, there are opportunities for improvement. As I oftentimes say, in everything that I do, I know I can do better. The same is true in this instance. We can improve efficiency, certainty, and predictability in the permitting process while also ensuring that communities have an opportunity to make their voices heard.
“Earlier this month, the Biden administration released new priorities to accelerate federal permitting and improve environmental reviews across a broad range of infrastructure projects.
“I think there are a number of good ideas from the Biden administration’s proposal that should be a part of permitting reform legislation. Among them is expanding the use of programmatic environmental reviews to accelerate permitting within identified regions.
“Some agencies are already beginning to do this. For example, off the coast of New York, the use of a programmatic economic impact statement is helping to create a record of the environmental impacts of offshore wind development. Doing so can result in more timely project-level reviews.
“I also believe that we should expand opportunities for developing clean energy facilities on Brownfields—an idea that I know Senator Capito supports. In addition, we should improve the use of digital tools and data sharing between agencies and facilitate greater community engagement—all ideas also supported by the Biden administration and by a number of our colleagues.
“Still, as we work on this hugely consequential matter, it’s important to hear from all stakeholders. That’s why I plan to soon release a permitting proposal as a discussion draft. When I do, I encourage our colleagues, along with members of the public, to provide substantive feedback.
“We also have much to learn about how these proposals would interface with the work currently being done by the administration to promote timely, effective reviews.
“And, that brings me to why we are holding today’s hearing: to gain the perspectives of our witnesses. We look forward to hearing from each of you and thank you for joining us today.”