Is permitting reform enough of a sweetener to pass Republicans’ sweeping US energy bill?
With Republicans now calling the shots in the House of Representatives, GOP members hope to deliver on their 2022 campaign promises.
One of their priorities, the Lower Energy Costs Act, was passed by the House on March 30. The aim is to drive down energy costs by expediting energy projects and expanding opportunities for oil & gas exploration.
“We made commitments before the election … that our number one priority would be bringing energy costs back under control and bringing energy independence back to the United States,” said Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis. “And, of course, that has large ramifications on overall inflation as well.”
In its current form, the bill would expand fossil fuel production by fast-tracking projects, slashing federal fees and eliminating certain restrictions on the import and export of oil and natural gas.
According to Curtis and his colleagues, this would drive costs down, with the savings passed on to everyday Americans.
Recent private sector announcements, however, suggest Utah is considering a future less reliant on fossil fuels.
An uphill battle
The road ahead is an uncertain one. Even though four House Democrats voted in support, President Joe Biden has said he would veto the bill if it made it to his desk. The White House called it “a thinly veiled license to pollute.”
Curtis is banking on bipartisan support in the Democratically-controlled Senate to soften Biden’s stance. He thinks the addition of permitting reform is the way to do it.
“Right now, if you're trying to permit anything, from a renewable project to a pipeline, you can't get it done,” he said.
The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act requires a thorough environmental review and impact study before federal permits or approvals can be granted for projects like electric transmission lines or oil pipelines.
Permitting reform is an appealing idea for some Democrats, namely West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. Reform was originally part of a deal to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, but was later pulled from consideration.
According to Curtis, there is momentum behind reform once again because green energy projects are also slowed down by the permitting process.
“I've probably had more conversations with my Democratic colleagues in the last couple of weeks about this issue of permitting reform than any other issue while I've been in Congress,” he said. “… Clearly, there's a path forward and a strong desire by both sides to figure out how to deal with this permitting reform issue.”
Utah’s changing energy landscape
Despite the efforts to bolster fossil fuels, the winds in Utah might be shifting. On March 31, Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company, Oregon-based PacifiCorp, announced that its two Utah coal-fired power plants would be closing by 2032.
The Hunter and Huntington plants in Emery County employ more than 300 people, and Rocky Mountain Power has signaled that the sites could be converted to nuclear power in the future.
“What we're talking about in the next 20 years is a fundamental remaking of our generation and transmission network, because it's clear that the expense of fossil fuel generation of electricity is continuing to get more expensive,” said RMP spokesperson David Eskelsen.
If nuclear power is coming to Utah, Rocky Mountain Power said it hopes to begin retraining employees starting in 2027.
For Curtis, being chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus and representing Utah’s coal, oil and gas country puts him in an interesting position.
He said he’s able to do both by selling fossil fuels as part of a greener energy future.
“Now, that doesn't mean we can just produce coal and burn it in any way we want willy-nilly,” he said. “We have to be green, we have to think about reducing emissions. But there is a real place in the world for U.S. fossil fuels.”
Curtis believes that by developing and perfecting technologies like natural gas, as well as carbon capture and storage, the United States could then export them globally and have an impact on global emission levels.
Although natural gas does produce fewer emissions than other fossil fuels, some scientists say expanding natural gas could hurt long-term progress on climate change.
A long shot
Even with some bipartisan support, political watchers say the chances of the Lower Energy Costs Act are slim. It would take a large cohort of Democrats crossing the aisle for it to succeed.
“Party rigor or party discipline within the chambers of the House and the Senate is pretty strict right now,” said Weber State Political Science Professor Gary Johnson. “It's a bold politician, a very courageous one, who tries to buck that.”
But there’s still a lot of negotiating that could take place behind the scenes and in the press before the Senate takes up the issue.
“Is this a pro-fossil fuels or is this a pro-climate change, renewables kind of a bill? In order to pass, it's going to need some bipartisan support,” Johnson noted. “So we would expect it to be severely watered down by the time it got to a vote because, otherwise, it is dead in the water.”
For Curtis, it’s all about getting away from framing the energy issue as a black-and-white choice.
“This is a far more complicated subject than ‘drill, baby, drill’ versus ‘all fossil fuels are evil.’”