To Fight Climate Change, President Biden Needs to Retire NEPA
Campaign promises have a habit of getting lost in the crowds on inauguration day, never to be seen again. Joe Biden’s commitment to making American electricity 100% carbon pollution-free by 2035, however, has survived to become an official White House target. Despite this resilience, the Biden clean energy effort will inevitably hit a bureaucratic snag due to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). To achieve his environmental goals while providing consumers with stable electricity, Biden needs to take the climate fight to NEPA and its byzantine review process.
The 2035 carbon pollution-free electricity target is just one heady aspiration within Biden’s remarkably ambitious climate agenda. By teaching miners to code, building charging stations for Tesla owners, and increasing the number of union membership subscriptions, Biden’s team are sparing no creativity to reshape America, while trying to make the economy “net-zero” by 2050 along the way.
But the administration’s renewable ambitions are on a collision course with the regulatory roadblocks of reality, particularly due to the bureaucratic process associated with the National Environmental Policy Act. Enacted in 1970, NEPA introduced the basic premise that federal agencies must take note of how their actions affect the environment. These actions include issuing grants, loans, and permits to private companies, triggering the need for an environmental assessment (EA) or a longer environmental impact statement (EIS).
However, no good deed goes unpunished. Despite the legislation’s basic, common-sense agenda, NEPA has become a convenient tool for opponents of infrastructural expansion to stall development through lengthy and expensive court cases. Given the risk of drawn-out litigation, EAs and EISs have become mammoth tasks that can take years upon years to complete. For example, EISs that were published in 2018 were already 4.9 years in the making.
The Gemini Solar Project in Nevada offers a sobering example for Biden’s high ambitions. In July 2018, it was announced that an EIS would be conducted for the billion-dollar Gemini project, which is set to become the largest solar farm in America. Following a variety of executive and departmental orders to streamline the NEPA process by the Trump administration, the project quickly received final approval from the Bureau of Land Management in May 2020. Unsurprisingly, activist groups have sought to stall the project in court, claiming that the EIS is flawed and that the project might disturb the habitat of the yet-to-be endangered threecorner milkvetch weed. Without an overhaul of NEPA, America’s largest solar project is left dangling by a milkvetch stem.
The tragic irony of the NEPA complex is that its myopic focus on the potential negative ramifications of infrastructure overlooks the environmental benefits of renewable energy. While some suggest that NEPA can be streamlined with broad approvals for specific industries or geographic areas, this approach will inevitably hinder the provision of decarbonized, stable electricity. If solar farms gain an exemption, will policymakers have the foresight to exempt rare-earth mines that are needed to manufacture batteries to keep the lights on at night? Even the White House’s climate emissary, John Kerry, has recently highlighted the important role that future technology will play in cutting emissions. Rather than trying to play NEPA Nostradamus, fixing the system across the board would avoid these blind spots and support an American infrastructural renaissance.
After 50 years in power, it’s clear that NEPA and its current regulatory process is outdated and needs to be retired. Ambitious decarbonization plans look good on paper, but without clearing the regulatory roadblocks that hinder renewable development, consumers will be left in the dark. Unless Joe Biden got a head-start on the EIS process while he was vice president, he’ll need to tackle NEPA now to oversee a renewable energy boom as president.
Oliver McPherson-Smith writes for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal