Cutting the red tape for cleaner energy: The pros and cons of permitting reform

By Jessica McKenzie | February 1, 2023

illustration of scissors about to cut through the red tape on a wind turbineIllustration by Thomas Gaulkin / Jorgen McLeman / Shutterstock

Last year permitting reform emerged as one of the most divisive climate policy debates in the United States. During my own reporting on geothermal energy, an underutilized source of renewable power, industry representatives insisted that the onerous permitting process is the single biggest challenge to expanding geothermal development. A joint industry and Energy Department report on geothermal energy estimated that streamlining the permitting process could more than double the amount of installed geothermal electricity generation by 2050, compared to “business as usual” scenarios.

Permitting-reform advocates say that kind of positive effect holds true for renewable power in general, and that cutting through the bureaucratic red tape around energy and transmission projects is essential to reaching the Biden administration’s goal of permitting 25 gigawatts or more of wind, solar, and other renewable energy projects on federal land by 2025. But many fear that permitting reform will undermine environmental laws that were enacted to protect the country’s natural and cultural resources and reduce needed regulation of fossil fuel projects. Is permitting reform worth the risk to meet the country’s ambitious climate goals, or can other solutions hasten renewable energy development but leave the country’s bedrock environmental laws intact?

To explore nuances in the permit-reform debate, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists solicited commentaries from six experts: Andrew Dessler, director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University; Sanjay Patnaik, director of the Center on Regulation and Markets at the Brookings Institution and Rayan Sud, a research assistant with the Center on Regulation and Markets at Brookings; Jessica Lovering, co-founder and executive director of the Good Energy Collective, a nuclear policy research organization; Jamie Pleune, a research fellow with the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah; and Dustin Mulvaney, an environmental studies professor at San José State University.

a wind energy project

Clean energy is the future. Permitting reform is how to get there

Permitting processes have been weaponized to stall clean energy projects until they die. Reforming the system could prevent that.
transmission lines silhouetted against sun low in the sky

How to modernize permitting for a low-carbon economy

From automatic permitting for low-impact projects to pre-clearing priority development areas, there are many ways to modernize permitting.
solar panels at sunset

The process is what matters

Environmental justice requires a robust permitting process with plenty of opportunities for local communities to participate.
windmills silhouetted against purple background

Get rid of bottlenecks—not environmental reviews

Permitting delays for energy projects aren't usually caused by environmental reviews—and they aren't always a bad thing.
transmission lines

Want clean energy, fast? ‘Streamlining’ environmental reviews could have the opposite effect

Nearly all proposed energy projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions get environmental permits on time, with few exceptions.

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