Permitting reform done right: America never knew how to build. But it could.

For more than a year now, we’ve been hearing the same lie about so-called permitting reform.

The lie goes like this: America used to know how to build things. But then we invented a lot of environmental rules, like NEPA the National Environmental Policy Act, and environmentalists and especially communities of color got really good at saying “no” to projects through the permitting process. Now, nobody can, or even remembers how, to build anything in America anymore – not housing, or roads, and certainly not energy infrastructure – which is a HUGE problem because to solve the climate crisis (and the housing crisis, and the affordability crisis) we need to build a lot of stuff, fast!

And the lie is everywhere: Republican lawmakers love to claim the “we can’t build anything” lie is why the price of gasoline or heating oil goes up (conveniently ignoring the massive windfall profits made by fossil fuel companies). But Democratic lawmakers, and the pundits who are too lazy to do anything more than regurgitate their talking points, do it all the time too. President Biden says it’s why he “had” to approve the Mountain Valley Pipeline. A majority of US Senators and Representatives apparently agree with Joe Manchin on this point.

I’m going to dismantle three lies: The lie that American used to know how to build things, that environmental laws and environmentalists are the reason we don’t build things any more, and the lie that the only way to meet our climate and clean energy goals is through permitting reform to make it faster and easier to build stuff. But first, if you already know all that and want to help us put pressure on Congress to do permitting reform right – with a focus on climate, clean energy, and Environmental Justice, sign here.

Lie #1 America used to know how to build things

Any conversation about American infrastructure needs to start with an understanding that we are all on stolen land. America was not “discovered,” it was colonized. And all of the infrastructure ever built on this continent was made possible, first and foremost, by stealing land and resources from the indigenous people and cultures that were already here. Also worth noting, as the 1619 project does in great detail, is that America was founded with enslaved labor – and there’s nothing in our culture or history that has not been affected by that.

Ok, you say, but that’s ancient history – folks like Ezra Klein and Joe Biden are talking about the industrial revolution, the post-war expansion of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, or even the internet building boom of the 1990s and 2000’s. But racism, colonialism, extraction, and pollution are not archaic concepts – they’re very much a part of, even the point of, those more recent building ‘booms.’

For example, the construction of the US interstate highway system — often touted as an example of ‘when American knew how to build’ — was specifically targeted to build over and destroy black neighborhoods. Likewise the rural electrification programs of the TVA in the 30s and 40s (when most of our current electric grid was built) were deeply racist, and designed to specifically benefit white people at the expense of black people in the communities they served. Even the modern marvel of the tech industry is rife with misogyny and sexism, not because women are ‘less tech savvy,’ but because gender biases were built into the industry at its founding more than 30 years ago. It’s worth worth remembering that social media giant Meta started as Facebook, and Facebook started as “facemash” a program mark Zuckerberg wrote to rank women based on their physical appearance. And the racism, exploitation, and theft that this country was founded on persist today in call kinds of ways — from unequal policing to enforcement of eminent domain for pipelines by armed state security officers.

The point is this: America never ‘knew how to build’ things right, and we certainly haven’t solved racism, colonialism, or environmental justice in the last 2 years. To the extent that people are not committing mass genocide every time they want to ‘build infrastructure,’ that’s a good thing. But it’s also depressing how often modern projects just repeat the same old patterns – Remember that DAPL was re-routed from a white suburb to sovereign tribal lands, on purpose. Remember that the ACP route was picked specifically because it crossed North Carolina counties that were poor-er, black-er, and more indigenous than their neighbors. Remember line 3, line 5, and Keystone XL. And of course don’t forget that the MVP itself is sited in poor, Appalachian communities that have already been made into a sacrifice zone for fossil fuel extraction – first coal, and now methane,

The lie is that America used to know how to build things. The truth is that it used to permit a lot more overtly racist, extractive, colonial, and dangerous projects.

The question Joe Biden, Joe Manchin, and others should as is: Can we build lots of new, wonderful things, that people will actually want and need? Which brings us to…

Lie #2 Environmental laws are why we can’t build things anymore

Ok, so we’re agreed that we don’t like racism, colonial genocide, or the general idea that all infrastructure projects should only be built if they specifically harm black, brown, and indigenous people. We also acknowledge that “that’s how we used to build stuff” is not a good substitute for “that’s how we should build things now,” nor does it preclude there being a “right way to build things.” And it does seem like people want to build things, especially clean energy things, right now. Hardly a day has gone by since the Inflation Reduction Act passed without an article about all the new money, investment and “building” of clean energy.

But pundits and politicians have given just as much attention to the projects that aren’t being built, as the many many projects that are. And there are real, if limited, problems that are preventing some clean energy from getting built – one often cited one has to do with the grid interconnection cue, which is basically how long it takes (cue, like single file) to connect new power suppliers like wind and solar farms to the electric grid. Another is inter-regional transmission, which has to do with big, high voltage, electric lines that cross between states and regions.

But it’s a lie that environmental laws like NEPA, and environmentalists suing or objecting to projects using those laws, are the cause of our problems with transmission lines or grid interconnection. Solar and wind projects do have to go through various environmental reviews like NEPA and the Clean Water Act, but they tend to pass through those processes fast because, well, there’s not a lot of pollution associated with building clean energy. Instead, anti-clean energy groups have had to make up a lot of misinformation and pose as local activists (a practice known as astro-turfing) in order to block clean energy projects usually over local zoning issues or concerns about property taxes and values.

And while getting big new power lines built is hard, that’s not actually what’s holding up construction of most wind, and especially solar, power in the US – that backlog of clean energy waiting to be plugged in is mostly caused by the utility companies, who don’t like the idea of having to spend money upgrading power lines so that someone else (a homeowner or a solar farm operator) can get paid to produce electricity. They like it better when they own the whole system, which is why the biggest utilities from California to North Carolina and everywhere in between are all united in opposing solar power, especially rooftop solar.

That’s also the reason why utilities refuse to build big transmission lines that connect states and regions: not because they don’t know how, but because it doesn’t make them money, and even if it did, it would introduce competition – the ability of another state or region to make power more cheaply (by pointing a sheet of glass at the sun, as Bill McKibben likes to say), and then sell that to what they think of as captive ratepayers – humans who only exist to make money for the corporation, and have no more rights to how that money is used or invested than a blade of grass in your lawn has on you as a homeowner (remember that colonial, enslaving past we talked about?).

What NEPA and the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws have been, at least sporadically, effective at stopping are fossil fuel projects, and construction of big ones like the ACP, KXL, and MVP that cross many communities, waterways, and ecologies. Even there, a casual glance will tell you that the vast majority of projects proposed are approved – FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to pick a familiar example, has approved nearly every single permit requested.

That the big utility companies who are refusing to build clean energy, grid interconnections, and big inter-state power lines are united with the fossil fuel industry that builds pipelines and refineries, in calling for permitting reform should tell you something about our last and final lie…

Lie #3 We need permitting reform to build things now

Ok, so we’ve established that we don’t want to go “back” to building projects because they are racist or damaging to a community. And we’ve established both that there are things holding up the clean energy transition we need, but that those things are generally not the existence or application of existing environmental laws like NEPA. So what’s really going on with all these pundits and politicians calling for permitting reform?

First, there was a trade: As we’ve mentioned many times, the two big laws passed last year: the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, both contained tradeoffs between clean energy and fossil fuels. Some were explicit: like the part of the IRA that says you can only build wind energy in the Gulf of Mexico after and also to the extent that you permit offshore lease sales for fossil fuel extraction. Others took time to come into focus – like way that new EPA rules on power plant pollution, combined with over-generous subsidies in the IRA, could make it cheaper for utility companies to build a new gas-fired power plants with (untested) carbon capture technology, than it is to just point a sheet of glass at the sun with a new solar farm.

Second, it’s always been about power, and I don’t mean electricity. Go back to Lie #1 and you’ll find that, historically, the one thing America truly excels at building is a narrative where the winners take all, and were always destined to do so. New York Times columnists, utility executives, fossil fuel war profiteers, and President Biden all have one thing in common: they’re all millionaires and billionaires. But we’re living through a mass extinction, a climate emergency, and a generational change in how the entire economy – every single thing in every single person’s life from your lights, to your car, to the temperature outside – is changing, fast. In an environment like the one we’re living in, a lot of people with money and power are strongly incentivized to do almost anything to keep things as much the same as the possible can. A little too much disruption can quickly become a revolution, and there is no question on which side they’d end up.

It’s still early, but what the IRA and BIL have done so far is pour money into already-rich companies to keep polluting in the same poor, environmental justice communities, with a wish and a prayer that pollution will get better for rich people someday, maybe. Cases in point:

We could go on and on with this list, but I trust the point is clear by now: We don’t want permitting reform that makes it easier to build fossil fuels, because we’re already building them over all kinds of local community and global climate objections. And we don’t need permitting reform to build clean energy because environmental laws aren’t what’s holding up clean energy and transmission, utility and fossil fuel companies are.

But don’t let the bastards get you down, because if you’ve read this far I’ve got one more section you’re going to actually enjoy…

Actual solutions: Permitting reform done right

The good news is that, like clean energy prices going down, and clean energy investment going up, there’s also a chance that things could get a lot better, a lot faster than they have in the past. Knowing history isn’t the same as being doomed to repeat it. And if we focus not on building everything faster; but on building the right things, in the right places, with the right process – then it will go faster (and also better, and less racist, genocidal-y). And just like solar and wind power, we both know how to build the energy economy we want, and can prove that it’s actually easier, cheaper and faster than what we’re doing now:

First, the reason I started writing this long post this week, is that Congress is about to go on their 4th of July recess. When they get back Joe Manchin has promised to bring back his dirty permitting reform bill, with a goal of sending a bill to the US Senate floor before August. But other Senators and some members of Congress have also proposed versions of permitting reform that focus just on clean energy, on FERC reform and more. We need those members of Congress to be MORE engaged right now, so that there’s a counter argument, and lots of amendments and votes to improve whatever dirty deal Joe Manchin comes up with next. Before Congress adjourns on Friday, can you sign our petition asking Congress to do permitting reform right?

Second, if you really want to reform the process, as opposed to the outcome, of environmental and energy permitting, the Environmental Justice for All Act has already been introduced with dozens of Congressional cosponsors. This bill is the gold standard for how to do community review of projects RIGHT, including concepts that are traditionally tricky for regulators like cumulative impacts and reparation for past harm.

Third, agencies like FERC the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy and Interior already have vast powers, and thanks to a recent Executive Order on Environmental Justice, a literal legal requirement to consider EJ impacts in permitting decisions. The problem is that most of those agencies routinely ignore, or are outright ordered to disregard, those rules when considering fossil fuel projects like the MVP or LNG export terminals. It’s as simple as Biden administration officials having the courage to do their jobs and follow the law. As always, you can sign on to our latest push to get FERC to treat EJ as more than a box to check here.

And, it’s worth noting that President Biden could at any time declare a climate emergency. Doing so would unlock vast powers to expedite clean energy, and shut down polluters – just like he did in a very limited way at the start of the Ukraine war. Sign here to tell him to get on with it.

And finally, some new thinking and remaking of institutions is required to turn our history and government from it’s tradition of racism, genocide, and extraction, into a vehicle of democracy and clean energy. My favorite is turning the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission into FREC, a Federal Renewable Energy Commission, with a specific mandate to expand environmental justice – what’s yours?

This is a long post already, so I’ll just say that the above list is not intended to be complete – but those are some good first steps: Passing laws that make it faster, cheaper, and more efficient to build renewable energy (not fossil fuels) and transmission (not pipelines); Reforming the process to specifically address, rather than redact, environmental justice (as the EJ4All Act does); Pushing existing agencies to follow the law and actually evaluate the climate and environmental justice impacts of projects they review, and to deny them when they (obviously) pollute, approve them when they don’t; and finally, instead of repeating the same tired lies that “America no longer knows how to build things because of environmental laws,” let’s actually re-make the permitting institutions and agencies into places that build things people want and need, instead of things that give corporations and the ruling class permission to take from us, pollute us, and ultimately kill us all with climate chaos.


  1. Pingback:Tell President Biden to declare a climate emergency before September's climate ambition summit - 198 methods

  2. In the title “America never new how to build.” It should read “knew” instead of “new”. Otherwise, nice article. But in some cases (e.g., pipelines) we hope that things do not get done too quickly, so that they may become uneconomical. Of course it would be better if they got explicitly rejected for being dumb, in view of accelerating species extinction and climate degradation.

  3. ITS TIME! We fought back the corporations . I want a clean and healthy planet , for the next generation .this planet is a gift. And we are guest.