WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) - When John Podesta, former adviser to Barack Obama, left nearly a decade earlier, he believed that hundreds of miles new transmission lines would be built in the Southwest to expand the reach of renewable energy across the region.
Podesta was therefore shocked to discover that, when he re-entered the federal Government last year to work on climate issues under President Joe Biden's direction, the lines hadn't been built. The lines still had not received the final regulatory approval.
Podesta told The Associated Press that 'these things get stuck, and they can't be unstuck'.
Podesta will now be the person in charge of resolving one of Biden’s biggest challenges, as he strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The country will not have the infrastructure it needs to power a future powered with carbon-free electricity if the president can't streamline the permitting process.
This issue is unlikely to be a part of the high-stakes talks between the White House, and House Republicans. They are trying to avoid the first ever default of the country on its debt at the end of this month.
It is not clear if a deal can be reached on permits in time, as Republicans are looking for ways of boosting oil drilling while Democrats are focused on clean energy. Its mere presence at the table shows how political battlelines are shifting. While American industry and unions have long been frustrated by these types of regulations, environmentalists are now also becoming exasperated.
This is a dramatic change for a movement which has focused more on slowing down development than promoting it. It has created unease with long-time allies, even though it opens up the possibility of new partnerships. This transformation is central to Biden’s hard-hat environmentalist vision, which promises blue-collar job creation by shifting away from fossil-fuels.
Podesta stated, "We need to build things again in America." "We became too good at stopping and not enough good at building."
The central question for any agreement is, of course: What will be built?
Last year, the issue of permits came up during negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin. A West Virginia Democrat, Manchin was a major vote in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act. This far-reaching law includes financial incentives to encourage clean energy.
Manchin also pushed for a proposal to make it easier to build the infrastructure needed for fossil fuels and renewable energy. He has focused on the Mountain Valley pipeline, which will carry natural gas in his state.
Republicans referred to the legislation as a "political reward." Liberal Democrats called it a dirty side deal. Manchin's plan stalled.
Elizabeth Gore is the senior vice president of political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund. She said that the senator deserves a lot credit for'really elevating this'.
She said, "It was really his efforts that put this issue in the spotlight."
Since then, Capitol Hill has seen a flood of proposals to ease the permitting bottlenecks. Last month, the House Republicans adopted their own proposal as part of a budget bill, which aimed to increase oil, gas, and coal production. Tom Carper (D-Del.) recently presented another proposal that focuses on clean energy.
Gore described all of the ideas as'stepping stones'.
Neil Bradley, vice-president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and executive vice president, was equally optimistic.
"The obstacle is not whether people like the idea or dislike it," he said. The hurdle is getting all the details sorted out.
Even though there is a lot of interest in allowing changes, a deal that can be reached will probably involve compromises that Democrats and environmentalists find difficult to accept.
The Republicans are in favor of more fossil fuels, and now that they have control over the House, nothing will be approved without their approval. But too many concessions to Republicans in the House could jeopardize support in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Biden's approval of Willow, an oil-drilling project in a pristine swath Alaskan wilderness, has angered environmentalists. After Podesta's speech on permitting was finished at a Washington Think Tank this month, activists rushed his vehicle and hung a banner in black letters that read 'End fossil fuels.'
Podesta argues it is impossible to phase out oil and natural gas immediately, and he says the status quo will not suffice for building clean energy infrastructure. He makes a point of
Brookings Institution analyzes federal data
The study found that approving transmission lines could take up to seven years. However, natural gas pipelines can be approved in less than half the time.
When asked where the negotiations might lead, he was circumspect.
Podesta stated that there was a bipartisan interest on the subject. 'I can't say where any of this will end.'
Deals could strengthen Biden's coalition by easing tensions between environmentalists (who have been often frustrated by opposition to projects that lead to jobs) and labor unions.
Sean McGarvey is the president of North America's Building Trades Unions.
He said that the relationship with environmentalists could turn into an alliance, depending on how it ends. But, "we have to do good business" to determine if we will be inviting each other to barbecues and crab pickings.
Already, other factions in the green movement are frustrated.
Brett Hartl is the government affairs director for Center for Biological Diversity. He said that the administration had made a mistake in allowing Manchin’s proposal to serve as a basis for negotiations. He said that the White House 'negotiated the game away at the start and put the ball on the 2-yard-line.'
He also criticized Podesta’s approach to permits.
He said: "He is dogmatically saying environmentalists are here the problem." It's easy for environmental legislation to be portrayed as the boogeyman.
Historians attribute the American regulatory system's origins to the backlash against major infrastructure projects in the mid-20th century. These included the interstate highway network and a number of dams. These projects raised questions about their environmental impact and made local communities feel like they were being pushed around. Oil spills off the coasts of Santa Barbara and Ohio, as well as fires in the contaminated Cuyahoga River, sparked fears over ecological damage.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act to force federal agencies to take into account the environmental implications of their decisions. State laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act were also passed at this time.
Christy Goldfuss is the chief policy officer of Natural Resource Defense Council. She said, "We have a working system for what it was intended to do." What we are looking to do is optimize that system for the needs of the future. This is a completely different conversation from anything we have ever had.
"It is a very difficult transition to make in the environmental movement," added she. "I don't believe everyone will make it. Some organizations will continue to block development.
What about those transmission lines in Southwest, on which Podesta had been counting?
The project will span 520 miles and carry electricity generated by a number of wind turbines in New Mexico, which is being called the largest wind farm in the hemisphere. Construction was redirected to please the Department of Defense which tests weapons there. However, local conservationists are still concerned that the construction will threaten natural habitats.
The federal government approved the project on Thursday, almost two decades after its initial proposal.