By Jay Landers

Energy production and infrastructure received significant interest in Congress in March. In late March, the House passed the controversial Lower Energy Costs Act (H.R. 1), a chief focus of which entails streamlining the permitting of energy projects. Separately, legislation recently introduced in the Senate would seek to preserve existing nuclear energy facilities and promote the development of new nuclear energy technologies.

Expediting energy production

Introduced March 14 by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the House majority leader, H.R. 1 aims to increase American energy production by expediting the development of such resources as oil, gas, and minerals. On March 30, the Republican-controlled House passed H.R. 1 by a largely partisan vote of 225-204.

Among its provisions, the bill would repeal all restrictions on the import and export of natural gas and promote greater interagency coordination during the review of proposed natural gas pipelines, according to a summary of the bill made available on the website of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

H.R. 1 also contains various provisions seeking to expedite oil and gas development on onshore and offshore federal lands and reduce or eliminate certain fees imposed on these activities by the 2022 law known as the Inflation Reduction Act. At the same time, the bill would repeal the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, the $27 billion fund created by the IRA to provide grant funding for zero-emission technologies and projects that reduce or avoid the release of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The Lower Energy Costs Act will increase American energy production, reform our broken permitting process, reverse the Biden administration’s radical anti-energy policies, streamline our energy exports and imports, and boost the mining of critical minerals,” Scalise said in a March 30 news release.

Streamlining the permitting process

The bill also seeks to streamline the permitting process for U.S. energy facilities through various means, including the codification of “key elements” of the One Federal Decision framework implemented by former President Donald Trump’s administration, according to McCarthy’s summary.

Created by an executive order signed by Trump in August 2017, the One Federal Decision framework set a goal for federal environmental reviews and authorization decisions for major infrastructure projects to be completed within two years (see "Presidential Order Streamlines Permitting, Revokes Floodplain Requirements," Civil Engineering, October 2017, pages 16-17).

A central feature of the framework called for a lead federal agency to be responsible for navigating a major infrastructure project through the federal environmental review and authorization process. Trump’s order establishing the One Federal Decision framework was among the executive orders revoked by President Joe Biden on his first day in office.

Key elements of the framework that would be codified by H.R. 1 include the “development by the lead agency of a joint schedule, procedures to elevate delays or disputes, preparation of a single environmental impact statement and joint Record of Decision to the extent practicable, reasonable time limits for environmental reviews, reasonable page limits for environmental documents and paper reduction measures,” according to McCarthy’s summary.

Among multiple other provisions intended to expedite the permitting process for projects, H.R. 1 would direct the U.S. Department of the Interior or the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “use previously completed environmental assessments and environmental impact statements to satisfy the requirements” of the National Environmental Policy Act for projects that are “substantially the same” as projects that have been previously analyzed, according to the legislation.

Support from ASCE

The bill’s provisions that seek to streamline the permitting process enjoy the support of ASCE, so long as they do not come “at the expense of a science-based evaluation and determination of impacts to the environment,” according to a March 27 letter to Scalise from Emily Feenstra, ASCE’s chief policy and external affairs officer.

The Society “applauds the inclusion of provisions in the Lower Energy Costs Act (H.R. 1) that aim to further reform the (NEPA) process to optimize infrastructure investments while safeguarding environmental protections,” Feenstra wrote. “The drawn-out regulatory review process can be a detriment to infrastructure investment, delaying projects, creating uncertainties, and increasing overall project costs.”

ASCE “believes that reducing unnecessary delays in environmental review and permitting processes is a critical step in improving our nation’s infrastructure,” Feenstra wrote. “By establishing time limits for reviews and decisions on infrastructure projects and designating a lead permitting agency for project reviews, H.R. 1 could reduce future delays,” she noted. “Clarifying the role of an agency tasked with overseeing a particular permitting process and urging collaboration between agencies will not only more quickly resolve interagency conflicts but will help ensure the development and use of a single NEPA document.”

At the same time, such procedures would do more than simply lead to faster project approvals. The provisions in H.R. 1 related to NEPA would also “improve the ability of agencies to reject incomplete project designs more efficiently, saving taxpayers money and creating greater agency flexibility to explore alternatives,” Feenstra wrote.

Strong opposition

Given the partisan nature of the support for H.R. 1, the legislation is not expected to receive consideration in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. The White House also condemned the bill in no uncertain terms.

The Biden administration “strongly opposes” H.R. 1, according to a March 27 statement of administration policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget within the White House. Along with granting energy producers a “thinly veiled license to pollute,” the bill “would raise costs for American families by repealing household energy rebates and rolling back historic investments to increase access to cost-lowering clean energy technologies,” the statement noted.

By repealing the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, H.R. 1 would obviate the reductions in energy costs and the improvements in economic development that the fund otherwise would provide, according to the statement.

The legislation also would “empower big companies to skirt the Clean Air Act by lifting pollution control requirements, weaken emissions requirements and worker protection for refineries using toxic chemicals, modify requirements under the bipartisan Toxic Substances Control Act for determining the safety of chemicals used in the energy sector, and repeal $1.5 billion in investments focused on curbing methane leaks that harm surrounding communities,” the statement said.

Advancing nuclear energy

On March 30, the same day that the House passed H.R. 1, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and other key members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works introduced the Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy Act (S. 1111), which is also known as the ADVANCE Act.

The bipartisan legislation “prioritizes the future of American energy security by establishing commonsense policies to help deploy nuclear energy, which is a clean and reliable generation source for our nation’s electric grid,” Capito said in an April 3 news release. “It also directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to create a pathway for conventional energy source sites to be repurposed and used in the future.”

To encourage the development of new nuclear technologies, S. 1111 would reduce “regulatory costs for companies seeking to license advanced nuclear reactor technologies,” according to the April 3 release. The bill also would create a “prize to incentivize the successful deployment of next-generation nuclear reactor technologies,” the release stated.

In a bid to preserve existing nuclear energy facilities, S. 1111 would extend through 2045 the so-called Price-Anderson Act, which covers liability claims by the public for injury and property damage caused by an accident at a commercial nuclear power facility. Currently scheduled to expire at the end of 2025, the act also limits the liability of owners of commercial nuclear energy facilities.

The legislation also would authorize $97 million annually for 10 years to remediate certain abandoned mining sites on tribal lands. The bill also would authorize $3 million annually for 10 years to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct health assessments.

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.