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The San Diego Union Tribune: Column: Rep. Scott Peters seeks changes in nation’s ‘bedrock’ environmental law

San Diego Democrat says streamlined permitting for faster expansion of energy grid is needed to distribute carbon-free energy

February 10, 2023

Rep. Scott Peters has a background as an environmental lawyer.

He’ll need much of his knowledge of environmental law and trial skills, along with some sharp political acumen, to accomplish an ambitious goal — making major revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act.

The law enacted in 1970 is considered a foundational document to protect the environment in the United States, and environmental organizations almost reflexively oppose efforts to change it.

Peters, D-San Diego, is pushing changes to NEPA and other laws to speed up the permitting and construction of interstate transmission lines to handle the coming boom of carbon-free energy.

He said each project currently can take 10 years to complete — with seven of those for planning and permitting. Meanwhile, he said the nation’s aging energy grid must be updated, while tripling in size over the next 30 years to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — a key target in the U.S. battle against global warming.

“In the 1970s, our environmental priority was to stop dirty, destructive projects,” Peters said last week at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he sits on. “. . . We have NEPA to thank for a great deal of environmental preservation, but its implementation is inevitably slow.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the “Building a Better Grid” initiative to expand and improve reliability of high-capacity power lines across the country. The project, funded through the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill, is intended to link up renewable energy generated in certain areas with other states that don’t have the capacity to generate certain kinds of alternative energy, such as solar or hydro power, for example.

Peters’ “Power On Act,” which had those same goals, was included in the infrastructure bill.

He is now negotiating legislation to streamline project timelines, consolidate reviews in one agency rather than sometimes several, and limit project-by-project litigation.

To critics, such proposals are often seen as weakening existing environmental protections, allowing for less input from affected communities and blocking recourse through the courts.

“There’s a lot of skepticism among many environmental groups,” Peters said in an interview.

Environmental organizations responded with outrage in 2020 when President Donald Trump rolled back regulations under NEPA. One of those groups was the Center for Biological Diversity, which doesn’t like Peters’ proposal, either.

“Streamlining, or watering it down, isn’t going to help us get the transmission we need,” said Howard Crystal, director of the center’s energy justice program.

He said there are obstacles that have nothing to do with NEPA. In particular, he noted holdups at the state level — something Peters also cited.

Crystal said powers already exist within the administration and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to address these issues.

“We have the laws we need, we just need to make them work,” he said.

When President Joe Biden restored provisions Trump dismantled, the White House called NEPA “one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.”

Peters said revisions are needed to better protect the environment by bringing green energy online more quickly.

“Ironically, many laws intended 50 years ago to protect the environment could undermine our climate action,” Peters said at the committee meeting.

That will sound familiar to many Californians. For years, both Republicans and Democrats have called for overhauling the California Environmental Quality Act, in part because of how it’s been used to block projects. Yet no major changes have been made.

To succeed, Peters and his allies will need to get the administration, at least some major environmental groups and Republicans on board. That’s no easy task.

Republicans, who tend to advocate for less regulation, now hold a slight majority in the House of Representatives. Peters has appealed to them because no bill will get out of the House without at least some of their votes.

He urged them not to just pass out hard-line deregulation bills aimed at boosting the fossil fuel industry because they will be blocked in the Democratic-controlled Senate or vetoed by Biden.

At a subsequent Energy and Commerce Committee meeting Tuesday, Peters expressed frustration at the gist of most bills offered by Republican members — which he later called “too oily and gassy” in the interview.

“Unfortunately, rather than focusing on our energy security, today’s hearing is doing nothing but securing a few soundbites for Republican press teams,” he told the committee on Tuesday.

A week earlier, Peters laid out several data points to make his case for expediting grid construction.

Citing Princeton University research, he said 80 percent of the projected emission reductions from the Inflation Reduction Act depend on building transmission faster.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says there are enough wind, solar and storage projects in the pipeline to power nearly 85 percent of the U.S. economy, “but 80 percent of them could be canceled due to insufficient transmission,” Peters said.

To do the job, he said 200,000 miles of new transmission lines must be built by the 2030s, adding that over the past decade 1,800 miles have been built annually — just over a quarter of what would be needed over the next 30 years.

According to Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, North America has built 7 gigawatts of inter-regional transmission (less than half of that in the U.S.) since 2014. South America has built 22 gigawatts and Europe 44 gigawatts. China has built 260 gigawatts, but Peters said labor conditions there don’t make that a good comparison.

Among the many issues facing Peters is that revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act would almost certainly apply to fossil fuel projects as well as alternative energy. Reducing the ability to block the former would give some climate activists pause about making changes.

Peters acknowledged how passionate many people are about protecting NEPA. But he said climate change isn’t going to wait for the build-out of the grid under current regulations.

“We can achieve high environmental standards with less time,” he told the committee last week. “NEPA was signed into law in 1970. One hundred and sixty-five of our congressional colleagues were not yet born. We are as far in time from 1970 as 1970 was from 1917.

“This is an old law, folks. We are charged to update it for our times. And that’s OK. It’s not sacred text. It didn’t come from Moses on stone tablets. It came from people just like us with IBM Selectric typewriters.”


Source: The San Diego Union Tribune