The United States has a permitting problem.
At a time when energy and natural resource security is more important than ever, we need an all-of-the-above approach to unleash American energy. However, that will not be possible until the Biden administration supports our drillers, miners, and energy innovators with tools to help do their jobs. For now, the administration seems focused on the opposite — shutting down domestic production in the long term and placing ill-suited measures on a much larger problem.
President Joe Biden’s recent actions, such as releasing 25% of our strategic petroleum reserves, invoking the Defense Production Act for domestic critical minerals supply, and reopening a small fraction of federal land for drilling, do not address the root cause of his domestic energy crisis: permitting.
The reality is that overly burdensome policies and environmentalists’ legal challenges are stopping energy companies before they ever break ground. According to the National Mining Association, Australia and Canada, two countries with equivalent environmental protections as the U.S., have mine permitting processes that last two to three years on average. In the U.S., permitting a mine drags on for an average of seven to 10 years!
Instead of making permitting faster, the Biden administration is making it harder. National Environmental Policy Act reviews are notorious for holding up energy and infrastructure projects for years. In 2020, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality found that it took an average of 4 1/2 years to complete an environmental impact statement under NEPA.
Rather than improving environmental reviews under NEPA, the Biden administration has chosen to make them more burdensome. Recently, the Biden administration rolled back key modernizations the Trump administration made to the more-than-40-year-old NEPA regulations.
As someone who represents an energy-producing state, I understand just how difficult it is for energy producers to navigate the environmental review and permitting labyrinth. Roadblocks and lawsuits from self-described “radical” groups slow down projects at every turn — and they are emboldened by an administration that is openly opposed to most energy projects to begin with.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to end drilling on federal lands. On his first day in office, he killed the Keystone XL pipeline.
Faced with an unjust Russian war in Ukraine and Europe desperate for American energy, the Biden administration is now trying to make itself appear friendlier to fossil energy.
But appearances are deceiving. For example, the Biden administration recently announced more federal land would be opened for oil and gas leases. But before actual development can ever begin on that leased land, the government must conduct an environmental analysis under NEPA, which can take years, and then the government must approve a permit to drill on the lease.
The Interior Department is sitting on more than 4,000 drilling permits waiting to be approved, and development is being held up in litigation on thousands of leases. The bottom line is that the number of leases aren’t the problem, the permitting and review processes are, and that will not be improving under this administration’s new NEPA regulations.
The administration’s hostility to regulatory reform applies even to types of “clean” energy projects that it praises publicly. Take renewable energy and electric vehicles. The administration has made bold promises to ensure 50% of vehicles sold in the U.S. are electric by 2030 and that all power will be zero emissions by 2035. To meet those promises will require an exponential increase in the amount of lithium, nickel, cobalt, and other so-called critical minerals that go into electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. Based on the Paris Agreement’s goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions, the International Energy Agency estimates global demand for key minerals could increase by between 700% and 4,200% by 2040 from 2020 levels.
Biden’s accelerated transition to these technologies exposes a major problem. Right now, Russia and China control the supply chains for these minerals. Russia supplies about 20% of the world’s Class 1 nickel, and another adversary, China, controls the refining process of 50% to 70% of lithium and cobalt.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently said that shortages in these materials are raising prices and limiting the adoption of electric vehicles. We have many of those resources here, but we can’t get them out of the ground because the federal government is not issuing permits, leaving us at the mercy of hostile regimes.
If the Biden administration will wake up to the fact the these barriers are hurting all energy projects, from fossil energy to renewables, I stand ready to work across the aisle. These problems are difficult but not insurmountable. We made real progress by codifying the Trump administration’s “One Federal Decision” policy to roads and bridge projects as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill last year. That policy ensures that project developers have a lead federal agency to work with and won’t be ping-ponged between multiple agencies. It aims to complete the federal environmental review process for any major project within two years, with federal permits and other authorizations issued within 90 days after that.
We could codify the same One Federal Decision policy for mining, drilling, and pipeline projects. We could also codify the commonsense modernizations to the NEPA regulations that the Biden administration is now trying to undo.
That would be a relatively simple first step and provide much-needed regulatory certainty.
Now it is time to come together and reform the environmental review and permitting process to support an all-of-the-above approach to American energy — including oil, gas, coal, nuclear, renewables, and critical minerals. Through bipartisan reforms, we can secure our domestic production and export American-produced energy across the globe. I’ll be waiting for the administration to join me.
Shelley Moore Capito is West Virginia's junior senator and the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.