According to a 2021 Pew Research study on climate change politics, 72% of U.S. adults reported to have not too much or no confidence in elected officials to act in the best interests of the public when it comes to climate change. That feeling isn’t unwarranted, either; constant debates over climate policy and science are pervasive in the U.S. government. Given that lack of trust, is there any hope the government can pass positive climate solutions?
If the 2023 Fiscal Responsibility Act is any indication, yes.
On June 1, 2023, the U.S. Senate passed the long awaited Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), which, alongside increasing the federal debt limit and providing major relief to a struggling U.S. economy, included various energy-related permitting reforms, many of which have to do with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires federal agencies to conduct environmental reviews when planning projects to assess potential environmental damage. While this has led to some environmental successes — from halting a waste-to-energy incinerator which would pollute an already contaminated area in Arecibo, Puerto Rico to pausing war games that would destroy sacred sites and native species on the islands of Tiinian and Pågan in the Northern Mariana Islands — the NEPA process, on average, can take anywhere from three to seven years. That’s a long time to be spending in NEPA limbo, and it’s holding up both clean energy and fossil fuel projects alike.
Politicians across the aisle have been pushing to make permitting reforms for decades, and the FRA is a major step in the right direction. Its passage demonstrates that climate bipartisanship is not just real, but possible and effective.
In fact, the original signing of NEPA was itself an act of climate bipartisanship. Generally regarded as the first major environmental law, NEPA was voted unanimously into law by a Democratic Senate in late 1969, and signed by President Nixon in 1970. NEPA required that all branches of the government gave proper care and attention to their impact on the environment. It also helped establish the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).
For any project that falls under NEPA, there are three levels of analysis that can be applied. First, different agencies have different actions they’ve determined do not harm the environment (called Categorical Exclusions) and are therefore excluded from the next level of analysis. The Environmental Assessment (EA) examines whether or not a proposed action will have a significant impact on the environment. If it is determined that an action will have an impact, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)— a list that details the project’s benefits and harm to the environment, as well as alternative methods the agency could use— is prepared.
While NEPA is seen by many lawmakers as important to maintaining environmental accountability, all of these steps take a long time, and they cause delays in projects that lawmakers on both sides want to see proceed. That’s why lawmakers found bipartisan common ground once again on a desire to advance infrastructure projects that will create jobs, augment taxpayer investments, and decrease costs of construction, pros that are appealing across the aisle.
With the FRA, some of that common ground became law. The FRA streamlines the environmental review process by tightening review deadlines, enforcing page count limits on Environmental Impact Statements, and authorizing the streamlining of energy storage to the list of eligible projects under the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act). Settling on these provisions wasn’t easy — in May, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) proposed the “Building American Energy Security Act of 2023,” which failed to pass the Senate after being supported by only 47 Senators, and in March, Senate Republicans also proposed the “Lower Energy Costs Act” which passed the House, but was not taken up by the Senate. But both proposals called for shortened review times and updates to Categorical Exclusions, which ended up in the finalized FRA document.
Some might argue that despite the FRA’s bipartisan support, it was far from a perfect climate solution. Many Democrats were nervous to agree to NEPA changes; in fact, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said these changes may act to “fast track dirty fossil fuel projects.” In fact the FRA, alongside its other provisions, authorized Manchin’s Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline spanning over 300 miles of West Virginia and Virginia. Also, updates to NEPA may lead to more harmful projects being approved, and give agencies the ability to skirt an EIS, only being compelled to complete an EA (which is not open to public comment and requires less scientific research).
While these concerns are valid, the FRA was a solid step in the direction of bipartisan climate solutions; it passed the Senate 63-36. Further, NEPA limbo was preventing important clean energy projects from being approved and enacted, and some agencies were trying harder to avoid submitting a time-consuming EIS than devoting resources to examining their projects’ impacts in-depth. Moreover, with the permitting process streamlined, clean energy projects can be passed more easily, creating new opportunities for development. The FRA also commissioned the study of widespread grid congestion and “interregional transmission,” which could help to shift the U.S. energy grid to relying more heavily on clean energy sources.
While bitter partisan fights — such as the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 or the controversial Senate vote on the Green New Deal in 2019 — may drum up more media attention, those battles have been the exception, not the norm. The FRA is part of a growing repertoire of bipartisan climate bills passed in the last few years. The 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act authorized $550 billion of federal spending to support public transportation, electric vehicles and buses, environmental spending, and more. The 2020 Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies Act was cosponsored by Democrats and Republicans, and promotes “carbon utilization and direct air capture research.” And the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act poured billions of dollars into long-overdue maintenance of U.S. National Parks, and had bipartisan support under the Trump administration. In fact, these bipartisan successes date all the way back to the 1970s, where following the aforementioned passage of NEPA, a Democratic Congress and Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford passed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, National Forest Protection Act, and more through bipartisan coalitions.
As these bills demonstrate, real, substantive bipartisan climate action can and does happen. It requires compromise, and many of these bills do not offer full solutions to the issues they tackle, but they are not nothing either. If elected officials on both sides of the aisle can continue to act in the best public interest and invest in a cleaner, more sustainable future for the country, we can work toward mitigating the effects of climate change.