By J.A. Briggs, Guest Columnist

A two-decade drought across the Southwest has shrunk the Colorado River to the point that the Biden Administration is stepping in to ensure fair access to its waters. 

Climate change is a major driver of this looming crisis. It underscores the urgent need to develop and deliver clean energy sources. 

The good news is that policymakers are getting serious about transforming America’s energy infrastructure. Next, they need to get busy reforming an outdated regulatory regime. Right now, unwieldy permitting processes are a red light for green energy. 

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress last year, dedicated $369 billion to clean energy projects over the next decade. This investment could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5% and lead to a nearly 40% increase in clean energy production by 2031 — if, that is, we can get out of our own way. As matters stand, our permitting processes are delaying or even halting new infrastructure projects, including solar and wind facilities.

The irony here is that the projects we most urgently need to protect the environment from further damage due to climate change are being slowed by regulatory processes put in place to — protect the environment.

The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which requires comprehensive analysis of environmental impact of projects, is a particular obstacle.  It was passed by Congress in 1970 to slow projects. But now, we recognize we need to build.

Ultimately, by the time all these approvals have been granted, it can take a clean energy project more than a decade to come online. Many others simply never materialize. Of current proposed wind energy projects, only 21 percent are underway. The Ten West Link, an energy transmission line from Arizona to California, won’t be online until 2025. Its developers began the federal permitting process in 2015.  

President Biden’s laudable goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 requires the speedy creation of vast new supplies of clean energy and transmission lines. If these goals are to be more than merely lofty aspirations, we need serious permitting reform.

Legislators are aware of the incompatibility of forward-thinking green energy investment with a decades-old regulatory process. Recently, there has been a flurry of activity in the Congress to address clean energy permitting, including creating a better process for permitting reviews, prioritizing projects by scale, and making some modest but important changes to NEPA. But more needs to be done. Our hope is that Senator John Hickenlooper and Senator Michael Bennet will continue advancing the conversation to finally achieve significant permitting reforms. 

It flies in the face of reason that Congress allocated hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change but leaves obstacles in the way to winning that fight. 

The precious resource of the Colorado River is in peril, but there is another waning resource: time. America does not have unlimited time to meet its clean energy goals. The longer we delay much-needed permitting reforms, the less likely we are to achieve them.

J.A. Briggs is a local activist and former chair of the Summit County Democratic Party. He has managed and consulted on many campaigns.

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