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POLITICO: Bruce Westerman and Scott Peters are working together to craft a bill to overhaul permitting rules that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can support.

"As we talk through the science and what the objective is, we seem to come together on the policy," Westerman said.

March 16, 2023

What's happening: A Republican House committee chair and a Democratic climate hawk who connected over their shared interest in saving trees hope to parlay that partnership into a compromise to ease permitting reviews for clean energy and fossil fuel projects.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, a conservative from Arkansas who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Scott Peters, a moderate from fire-prone California, are working together to craft a bill to overhaul permitting rules that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can support. But passing permitting reform in a divided Congress, even with provisions that have bipartisan support, is a long shot.

“We’ve got common interests,” Westerman said in a recent joint interview in Peters’ office. “We realized we both might have different approaches to get to it. But as we talk through the science and what the objective is, we seem to come together on the policy.”

Background: The two lawmakers have previously worked together on a forest initiative. In November 2021, while traveling to a U.N. climate conference, Westerman, the only licensed forester in Congress, and Peters discussed saving giant sequias from wildfires. That led then-Minority Leader and current Speaker Kevin McCarthy to invite the pair to visit the Sequoia National Forest to tour damage with Forest Service officials as part of a six-member bipartisan group in May 2022.

The trio the next month introduced the “Save our Sequoias Act,” a bill that would empower the federal government to bypass lengthy environmental reviews and more easily conduct forest management projects to reduce wildfire risk.

Path to permitting: That effort led Westerman and Peters — with McCarthy's tacit blessing — to partner on a high-stakes effort to reach a deal on energy permitting — a task that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other moderates failed to accomplish last year and could be even harder to achieve in the more partisan House.

House Republicans are currently focused on passing a sprawling energy package by the end of the month of which permitting is a major focus, but whose oil and gas and mining provisions make it unlikely to get the support of Peters or any Democrats.

Key point: As that partisan process plays out, Westerman, now in a powerful perch as chair of the Natural Resources Committee, and Peters, an environmental attorney who has co-authored bipartisan bills on carbon capture, nuclear energy, and hydrogen, are holding regular conversations with each other to figure out how to turn the GOP’s permitting plank — an opening bid to Democrats of sorts — into a compromise.

But Westerman realizes the GOP will have to negotiate with Democrats. "If we can come up with a policy that gets Scott comfortable, it will get a lot of his colleagues comfortable," he said.

Meeting in the middle: Forging a compromise will be difficult, given the vast differences in priorities each party has when it comes to permitting reform.

For most Republicans, their priority is shortening reviews for both fossil fuel infrastructure and clean energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, a bedrock environmental law that many Democrats are loath to reopen. GOP lawmakers also want to make it more difficult for environmentalists to sue to stop these projects, as Republicans attribute major delays in project construction to such litigation.

Inside the details: Peters is adamant that addressing climate change will require revisiting NEPA, and broadly agrees that setting deadlines and imposing limits on lawsuits will be key — in line with GOP legislation moving through the House.

“As climate activists, we need to be on offense not defense," Peters said. "You can’t say climate is a crisis and we have no time and not do things differently."

Westerman admits that streamlining NEPA reviews would bring more benefits to renewables and other clean energy projects than to fossil fuels, since developers are planning more clean projects due to their competitive cost and climate benefits.

While Westerman argues broad NEPA process changes would boost transmission projects, Peters and other Democrats are pushing for a specific policy carveout that would give the federal government more power to permit interstate power lines, since many of those projects encounter delays at the state and local level.

Peters is floating the idea of creating a new federal siting authority at FERC with strong powers such as exercising eminent domain authority — similar to how the agency handles natural gas pipelines as established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Asked if he and other Republicans would be comfortable giving FERC more power, Westerman skirted the question, but acknowledged “we need the transmission.”

That prompted Peters to concede that “more FERC authority is part of it, but Bruce is right, it’s not all of it.”

“NEPA is definitely a part of it [too],” he added.


Source: Politico