By Kevin Killough, energy reporter
With the feds owning so much of Wyoming, few industries in the Cowboy State can develop projects without asking the federal government for permission.
It’s a process that often means long delays and, in some cases, projects never get off the ground.
It’s also sparked a battle on Capitol Hill with Republicans and Democrats presenting their own playbooks for permitting reform. While Republicans released their version last week, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, went public late Wednesday with the Democrats’ long-awaited permitting reform bill.
Wyoming Republican Sens. Cynthia Lummis and John Barrasso have publicly backed a Republican permitting reform bill that Sen. Shelley Capito, R-West Virginia, introduced while the Democrats were holding back on releasing theirs.
Lummis said Wednesday that the effort to streamline federal permitting could have gone much better with more collaboration from Manchin.
“If Sen. Manchin came to the table and was ready to negotiate in good faith, I believe we could make some real progress on meaningful permitting reform,” Lummis said.
Prior to the release of Manchin’s bill Wednesday, Lummis continued to back Capito’s version.
“I am open to hearing Sen. Manchin’s solutions and ideas to address the permitting backlog in our country. I joined Sen. Barrasso in cosponsoring Senator Capito’s permitting reform bill because it will have a real impact for the people of Wyoming,” Lummis said.
She said the permit-streamlining provisions of Capito’s bill, the Simplify Timelines and Assure Regulatory Transparency (START) Act, will “unleash domestic energy production capabilities at a time when the costs to fill our cars and heat our homes is skyrocketing.”
Lummis also pointed out that because so much energy development in Wyoming happens on federal land, most projects are “hamstrung by onerous federal permitting processes.”
A comparison between the CK Gold Mine, which is on state and private land between Laramie and Cheyenne, and the Sundance-area Bear Lodge Project, which is on federal land, illustrates the problem.
Rare Element Resources owns the Bear Lodge Project and began its federal permitting process for a rare earth element mining operation in 2012, but by 2015 had run out of money. It suspended its permitting process with hopes to restart the operation with a refining demonstration project near Upton. The company continues to gather environmental data in hopes of satisfying federal requirements should operations resume.
Meanwhile, U.S. Gold Corp. officials said the Wyoming process for operations at the company’s CK Gold Mine on state land shouldn’t take more than 18 months before construction can begin.
Barrasso had been critical of Manchin’s bill since a draft version was released earlier this summer. With the release of the full bill, Barrasso was no more warm to Manchin’s approach to reform.
“Our top priority must be unleashing American energy. This bill falls short of that. It does nothing to boost production in the United States. It gives Washington bureaucrats new power to impose costly electric transmission projects around the country,” Barrasso said.
Barrasso said that provisions of the bill could, if passed, require Wyoming electricity consumers to foot the bill for projects in other states, such as California.
“If Democrats are serious about promoting energy independence, they should support the meaningful permitting reform put forward in Senator Capito’s START Act,” Barrasso said.
Dubbed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022, Manchin’s bill has a number of provisions aimed at streamlining federal permitting.
According to a summary of the bill, the bill sets a 2-year target for reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act for major energy and natural resource projects. The projects require an environmental impact statement, which can sometimes delay permitting of mines, wind farms, transmission lines, and oil and gas projects for up to a decade.
Manchin’s bill also expands existing authority to give the federal government increased permitting authority for transmission lines that the secretary of energy determines to be in the national interest. If passed, the bill would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure project costs are allocated to benefitting customers and allows FERC to approve payments from utilities to jurisdictions impacted by a project.
In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday, Manchin discussed how long it can take to permit projects and how it’s holding back energy production, which is raising energy costs for Americans.
“Our producers are handcuffed by an arduous permitting process that doesn’t allow them to meet the supply problems that we’re facing,” Manchin said.
It’s not just oil and gas projects, the lawmaker noted.
“If you’re on the renewable side, and you want all renewable — no fossil whatsoever — you can’t get a transmission line built,” Manchin said.
Manchin had made a deal with Democratic leaders in Congress that, in exchange for Manchin’s support on the Inflation Reduction Act, they would support his push for permitting reform.
Yet, the bill faces opposition from both sides of the aisle.
Manchin’s bill is set to be included in the federal funding vehicle known as the continuing resolution. If the resolution isn’t passed by the end of the month, a partial shutdown of the federal government is triggered.
Manchin had released a draft of the bill this summer, and based on the provisions in that draft that align fairly closely to the bill released Wednesday, opposition was already brewing.
A House opposition letter signed by 70 progressives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, shows a high degree of resistance among Democrats.
“These destructive provisions will allow polluting manufacturing and energy development projects to be rushed through before the families who are forced to live near them are even aware of the plans,” the letter read.
Environmental groups also have spoken out against the bill, as well as any weakening of environmental reviews for projects.
“While we must rapidly build out the infrastructure to unleash clean energy, we cannot silence the communities most impacted by development in the process. Weakening the National Environmental Policy Act and other bedrock environmental protections will only entrench environmental injustices that we must remedy as we build the new clean economy promised by the Inflation Reduction Act,” Earthjustice said in a statement.