The House Democrat trying to move his party on permitting reform

February 23, 2023

Read more on why sensible, bipartisan reforms will help save the planet in this February 22nd piece from Politico, posted below:

The House Democrat trying to move his party on permitting reform

By Emma Dumain and Kelsey Brugger

February 22, 2023

As the fight over infrastructure permitting resurfaces on Capitol Hill, one California Democrat is sticking his neck out in the name of climate change.

His ideas are controversial — even within his own party.

Rep. Scott Peters, who represents San Diego, wants to open up a landmark law many Democrats and greens consider sacrosanct: the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, which requires federal agencies to analyze the impacts of their actions before any project can proceed.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) put NEPA changes on the table last year in his push to speed up infrastructure projects — triggering a debate about the balance between environmental protection and the need to move quickly. Peters is one of the few other Democrats willing to publicly entertain the idea of opening up the law.

“The boogeyman we always heard about is, ‘Oh, you’re trying to change NEPA,’” Peters said. “And yeah, I’m trying to change NEPA. If it keeps us from saving the planet? Yeah.”

Peters’ argument also comes as Democrats, climate hawks and the White House urge action to ensure clean energy investments in the Inflation Reduction Act come to fruition. Some also worry that, without changes to the permitting process, implementation of the massive climate spending package could be delayed, becoming a political liability for Democrats ahead of 2024.

We sat down with Peters to learn more about his burgeoning role as dealmaker — and the political risks he is willing to take.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I’d love to start by hearing what your philosophy is around climate issues and where you fall on the ideological spectrum about what we need to do to address the climate crisis and the warming planet.

The thing that I recognize about being a trial lawyer and being in local government is that, every time there’s conflict, you have to manage, and that change makes people nervous, and sometimes they’ll grumble. And the amount of change we have to make to deal with climate is radical. I don’t think people appreciate it. People don’t appreciate that it’s not just the quantity of change, but it is just the nature of rethinking how we do stuff to respond to what everyone says is a crisis.

The grid took 150 years to build. We have to build one just as big in 15 years, and we have to build another one 15 years after that. And we are incapable of doing that today because of all the process we have. So I am going to sound like the biggest deregulator in the world, because I don’t think we can follow the same process we’ve gotten used to literally over 52 years and make the numbers that are going to support the decarbonization we say we want.

How do you make Democrats comfortable with that?

I think you have to drive the facts. That’s it. When you say to people, we’re going to lose 80 percent of the [Inflation Reduction Act] – putting the money aside, it’s not an accomplishment until you get it into the ground. If you don’t do it in time, you’re going to lose 80 percent of the climate benefit of that.

How much do you think Democrats’ resistance to reopening NEPA has to do with distrust across the aisle, that their need to keep NEPA closed is out of this fear Republicans just want to drill everywhere without discrimination?

I think that’s part of it, but I also just think people have this biblical sense about the 1970s environmental laws. We’ve been told often, ‘I don’t want to reopen the Clean Water Act, just on principle, because I don’t know what will happen to it.’ They’re nervous about taking this vase off the shelf.

I always just say that these laws aren’t from Moses, they’re not on tablets, and they’re created by people no smarter or better-looking than us. We were called on to meet the moment with the laws that fit today. If you accept the challenge of climate change, and you accept we have to follow the science, it is inevitable that you will accept the fact that we have to change these processes.

What conversations are happening right now around permitting reform, and what do you think it’s going to take to get a coalition together to make that happen?

What I would envision is that [House Natural Resources Committee Chair] Bruce [Westerman (R-Ark.)] and I, and some other people, might come up with a product. The issue for Democrats, in the past, is that [Republicans] would do NEPA reform with two-year timelines and one agency designated as the lead, and then [Republicans] would add something like, ‘you can’t talk about the social cost of carbon,’ so that no one can vote for it. And it’s stupid. So first of all, they gotta stop that. They can’t put these poison pills in. But we’ve got to come up with what we think would work.

Do you think there are enough Republicans in the House who want Democratic buy-in on permitting reform?

People who are serious know that it has to be bipartisan. If you think of climate change as akin to winning a world war, which I think it is, it’s not something you do with one party. It’s ambitious to do health care reform with one party: This is going to be way bigger than Obamacare in terms of change in society and process. And part of the issue is that it’s not just partisan bickering – it’s even above that. It’s like, people don’t recognize the magnitude of change that this is going to require.

What responsibility do you think Democratic leadership has to help engage members on this priority?

I’d just ask them to sit back a little bit and let it play out. Let us hammer out what the facts are. I think [in the past] there might have been a tendency to weigh in with a big “no” from way up high, and that’s not constructive. I think [House Minority Leader] Hakeem [Jeffries (D-N.Y.)] has heard that members want to be able to do what they’re good at and what I would suggest…is they just hang back and let it get hammered out. There will be ugly some days, but I’ve been through a lot of these battles.

So you would prefer them to sit back and let the process play out even as opposed to them coming out and saying “we want this?”

We do want to have some conversation with [John] Podesta, [Biden’s senior adviser for clean energy innovation and implementation], and [Mitch] Landrieu, [Biden’s senior adviser and infrastructure coordinator], about deploying this. I really think presidential leadership on this issue would be really helpful, because there are some hard truths that people are going to have to hear.

It’s interesting you say that because the White House press secretary and the aides have made statements saying, “the president wants this,” but there hasn’t been the kind of handholding you’re talking about.

There’s going to need to be a lot of pats on the back, comforting, “it’s okay.” Chamomile tea.

What’s the likelihood you get a true bipartisan product at the end of this and not just a Republican bill that, like, 10 Democrats vote for? Do you think it’s possible to get a consensus bill?

That’s my goal. We want to come up with something that the environmental community is enthusiastic about. That’s just not going to happen this week.

So what conversations are you having to get the ball rolling? Are you starting the chamomile tea service with the outside groups now?

Well I think I’m going to be more of the breaking-the-glasses person. I’m going to continue to ask, “How do you get there? How do you meet this condition that physics imposes on us — not politics?”



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