Making Permit Reviews More Efficient?

By John McFerrin

For at least the second time, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV)’s dream that we should fast track proposed infrastructure projects has been thwarted. His idea was to shorten the time for review of infrastructure projects, limit judicial review of agency decisions on those projects, etc. He also wanted to specifically direct that the Mountain Valley Pipeline be approved.

Senator Manchin had previously proposed this in September 2022, as part of a spending bill.  Most recently he had proposed it as an add-on to a defense authorization bill that was assured of passage. He didn’t have the votes.

He has attributed the failure of his idea to politics, an attribution that makes sense. Fast tracking a pipeline sounds like a Republican idea; examples of when any business wanted to do anything but the Republicans said, “Whoa, hold on, let’s think about this” are rare or non-existent. Maybe Republicans opposed the idea just because a Democrat suggested it. A more nuanced explanation would involve a coalition of those who think hasty review of projects is a bad idea and those who didn’t see why a project in Senator Manchin’s state should be singled out when they had projects in their states they wanted to nudge along.

In any event, the Mountain Valley Pipeline remains where it always was—struggling to overcome its problems with slides and trying to convince various courts that it can, in fact, operate within the bounds of the law.

In the context of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, it is easy to think of the failure of efforts to fast track it as a good result. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a bad idea. Even if we could look past all the landslides and all the misery that it would impose upon those who live along its path, it is still a bad idea. Even if we assume it will operate within the letter of the law, it is still a bad idea.

It is a bad idea because it is a long-term commitment to natural gas. The pipeline is a multi-billion-dollar investment. Such investments are not profitable in a single year. It is intended to be in operation for decades. So long as it exists, there will be pressure to keep using it. From a climate change perspective, continuing to burn natural gas for decades more is a losing strategy. We should not allow an infrastructure investment that commits us to continue natural gas.

We are already in that situation with coal. There is near consensus that, because of its contribution to global warming, burning coal is a terrible idea. Many keep doing it because they have no alternatives or because they are working to move away from it and haven’t yet made it. In West Virginia we keep burning it, in part, because our political leaders have it imbedded in their brains that coal is West Virginia, we can’t get along without it, etc. A more fundamental reason is that we have all this infrastructure designed to mine coal. Were it not for all the railroads, tipples, and loading docks that have been built in the last century there would not be a lump of coal mined today.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is the same thing. Building it locks us in to a future of burning natural gas. Just as we don’t want to be locked into a future of burning coal, we should not be locked into a future of burning less dirty, but still not acceptable, natural gas.

While the question of whether or not the Mountain Valley Pipeline should be fast tracked is an easy one, the overall question of how infrastructure projects are reviewed is not.  

Moving to a carbon free future will take new infrastructure. The mantra of people who are serious about slowing climate change is “electrify everything; produce electricity sustainably.”  If we are to do that, we need upgrades to the electricity grid. We need to site the facilities that produce all that electricity. If we are going to do all the upgrades and siting that is necessary, we need to do it efficiently.

In review of proposed projects, “efficiency” is a loaded word. In the past words like “efficient” or “streamlined” were euphemisms for cursory. Advocates for “efficiency” in permit review were really advocating issuing each reviewing agency a big stamp and a conveyor belt so it could stamp YES on any project that came down the line.

There is a lot to consider here. One person’s trudging through mounds of pointless red tape is another’s taking seriously obligations to protect endangered species, clean water, etc.  There is a reason—a very good reason—for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) policy of taking a serious look at the environmental consequences of our actions before plunging ahead. Everybody having their say is a core cultural value.

At the same time, we should do what it takes to make the process efficient. Not efficient in the damn-the-review-and-fire-up-the-bulldozers way. Instead, we should try to make the process truly efficient, doing a proper review with the least amount of effort. As wrong as Senator Manchin is about the Mountain Valley Pipeline, maybe he has a worthwhile goal in trying to make permitting more efficient.