They say that a week is a lifetime in politics, and that certainly seemed to be the case this week as Democrats’ flailing efforts to pass a comprehensive climate and social spending bill got a sudden and unexpected jolt of energy.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who just weeks earlier had withdrawn his support for the bill, announced that he was changing course and backing a $700 billion deal that includes roughly $370 billion for energy and climate, three years of extended Obamacare subsidies, and prescription drug cost reforms. The package will be paid for with a new minimum 15-percent corporate tax on corporations making more than $1 billion per year in profits, closure of a loophole that benefits the private equity industry, and increased enforcement support for the IRS.

Congressional Democrats say the package aims to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, which falls short of President Biden’s proposed 50-percent cut but nonetheless representing the biggest climate spending package in U.S. history. The plan would require offshore oil and gas lease sales in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, something that Manchin has demanded, but also includes funding for electric vehicle credits, clean energy technology incentives, and a methane fee.

The package, which will be debated this week under so-called “reconciliation” rules which bypass a filibuster, will need the votes of all 50 Democratic Senators, plus Vice President Harris’ tie-breaking vote, to pass in the Senate. It is not yet certain Democrats have the votes: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who had previously opposed the Democrats’ bigger spending plans, has not indicated her position, and Democrats may be short some votes if members test positive for COVID. But if the bill passes the Senate, House Democratic leaders are preparing to bring the chamber back from August recess to vote on the measure.

Permitting Reform on the Agenda

The agreement between Schumer and Manchin also includes another item that will be of major interest to the CRM industry: it calls for Congress to approve a separate permitting reform bill by the end of September, stating that reform “is essential to unlocking domestic energy and transmission projects, which will lower costs for consumers and help us meet our long-term emissions goals.”

The permitting reform piece is not part of the larger package because Congressional rules do not allow a provision that does not directly impact the federal budget to be included in a reconciliation package, so permitting reform must be done separately in the normal process that requires 60 Senate votes to move ahead.

At this point, it is not clear what “permitting reform” will entail, as no details have been provided, but there is a good chance it could impact how NEPA reviews – and even Sec. 106 reviews – are conducted. ACRA is working closely with its allies on and off the Hill to make sure that any permitting reform plan makes the process work better without sacrificing the need to weigh impacts om the environment and cultural resources.

NEPA Pushback

The reconciliation bill is not the only Congressional action that could impact the permitting process. It is possible that the Senate will vote this week on a resolution rejecting the Biden administration’s NEPA reforms.

Back in April, the White House Council on Environmental Quality undid changes that the Trump administration had made to NEPA, changes that ACRA and other organizations criticized for weakening the law. The Biden administration restored the authority of agencies to analyze alternative approaches to a proposed project when conducting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and reestablished that CEQ’s NEPA regulations are a floor, not a ceiling, for agency NEPA procedures, among other changes.

In response, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) last month introduced a resolution of disapproval of the Biden administration’s regs, with the support of all of his Senate GOP colleagues. Sullivan has said that  his resolution, filed under the Congressional Review Act, is being motivated by his allegiance for “working men and women of this great nation.” The CRA allows lawmakers to reverse administration regulations by simple majorities. Even if the resolution passes the Senate, it is unlikely to be approved by the Democratic-led House. That said, should Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress in the upcoming election, there may be more efforts to relax NEPA and similar regulations.

In other federal news that touches CRM:

Senate Committee Advances African-American Burial Grounds Bill.  The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved, on a July 21 unanimous voice vote, the African-American Burial Grounds Preservation Act. The bipartisan bill would provide grant opportunities and technical assistance via the National Park Service to research, identify, survey and preserve African-American burial grounds.

ACRA and other preservation groups support the legislation and are working for its passage. It now heads to the full Senate; a companion bill also is being weighed in the House.

White House Launches Carbon Capture Permitting Task Forces. CEQ has announced the formation of two new task forces on permitting processes for carbon dioxide capture, utilization and sequestration (CCUS) projects, one for projects on federal lands and the Outer Continental Shelf, and one for projects on non-federal lands.

The task forces, authorized by Congress, are intended to ”(1) identify challenges and successes that permitting authorities, project developers, and operators face to permit CCUS projects in an efficient, orderly, and responsible manner; and (2) provide recommendations to improve the performance of the permitting process and regional coordination for the purpose of promoting the efficient, orderly, and responsible development of CCUS projects and carbon dioxide pipelines.” CEQ is asking for nominations to serve on the task forces.

Biden Boosts Offshore Wind Projects. President Biden unveiled a set of executive actions on climate change in late July, including a boost to the domestic offshore wind industry. The administration will seek input on two potential offshore wind leasing areas spanning 700,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico, while also moving forward with developing offshore wind areas in parts of the Atlantic coast where the Trump administration had previously banned development.