As part of his price for agreeing to pass the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, Senator Joe Manchin extracted a promise from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to pass a "sidecar deal” addressing the issue of permitting reform. Earthjustice president Abigail Dillen thinks it's a bad deal.
Ms. Dillen has a valuable critique of how the federal government funnels so much benefit to the fossil fuel industry. But I couldn't help but hear a subtext of "Earthjustice runs on NEPA, and loosening permitting would be bad for the organization I run." Can you counter my suspicion? I'd rather believe what she has to say, but her incentive structure should properly be examined. Thanks!
David, I am looking forward to this interview. I hope you will also interview one of the climate hawks who is pro permitting reform. I’d love to really understand both sides. I found this potentially compelling: https://twitter.com/ne0liberal/status/1567155297826885637?s=21&t=vqOlnD8XpLW6FYNGSxVQFA
Also this, “ Of Department of Energy projects under NEPA review, 15% are fossil fuel projects and 42% are clean energy or conservation”
EarthJustice was on board with John Muir Project decades ago, JMP leverage regulation and law to delay and halt projects and all the environmental justice language dresses up the core business of absolute conservation (of the view from your living room and the romanticized view of our wilderness). It is possible to change one's stripes, but this interview did not suggest such a change has occurred. JMP is a poster child for NEPA abuse complete with romanticization and disempowerment of indigenous voices (recent LA times article was pure projection, and claimed an indigenous scientist... wasn't but was guilty of romantacizing make-believe stories of indigenous agency in our natural forests). NEPA has been leveraged by local interests to block broader interests - that can be useful when leveraged by those with no other route to voice and degenerate when leveraged by vested interests seeking to preserve their privileges.
JMP held up forestry work around the Giant Sequoias for 15 years of veto-driven approval process. The work that was finally executed was insufficient to protect those trees and we lost 20% of them in the last two years. Fire, like the real environment, doesn't care about the regulation, it'll take care of things so long as we delay. There was a large salvage logging project in Oregon that was blocked by lawsuit that correctly identified an improper exception to environmental review in the approval process. The project was unambiguously the right thing to do ecologically and the delay will remove the economic incentive to get the work done fast enough to secure that ecological outcome (burned trees will decay, emitting their carbon as methane and CO2 before the work can be resumed, when the work is resumed the trees will no longer be valuable for timber and those companies with the equipment to do the work will no longer make enough on the project to do the work), but the lawsuit on behalf of 200,000 acres of woodpecker habitat didn't really care about any of that. A few snags, that's what the woodpecker needed, not hundreds of miles of moonscape, but this is the regulatory regime we live in, where we stand with technically correct absurdity and stop those of good faith and poor technical execution. For my friends anything and my enemies the law, this is what NEPA is in practice.
From the wrap: "That's where the environmental movement needs to put their energy." Implying this is not us. Not them. They are not part of the environmental movement. Quite a tell in an otherwise disciplined messaging operation - I'm glad you ran this out for most of an hour and wish you channeled a little Medhi Hasan in these to get to the bottom of things earlier.
Traditional practices involved active management, wielding fire for human outcomes, and deliberate forestry (selection, removal and modification for utility and value, perpetual change); these are what we've suppressed for 125 years. The fire doesn't care what we want, it is out there restoring a version of natural order despite our preferences. NEPA blocks all of our efforts to return to a steady state along a more survivable pathway, and it isn't wielded on behalf of tribes as often as it is wielded under the guise of tribal interests. One man's arsonist is another's cultural burner.
When I read about a project being blocked and check behind the scenes it is usually a litigious organization leveraging NEPA on behalf of a local stakeholder providing cover. Often the new project is pitted against the null hypothesis instead of the status quo of ongoing fossil fuel damage; let's preserve this toad habitat to block a geothermal project because it is bad for toads who are all about to become extinct in this location because of climate change from fossil fuel burning. It is easy to motivate opposition to anything by controlling the framing. So yes, we need to remain fixed in opposition to fossil fuels but NEPA is not an asset in that fight. Abby said as much, NEPA projects only have a 2% block rate and we've been building an immense amount of fossil fuel infrastructure! We need to be able to fix problems without having to fix every conceivable problem at the same time - perfect is the enemy of done.
The NEPA success rate mentioned in the paper is highly suspicious. A Successful NEPA challenge isn't just the blocked project outcome. Delay and Degradation of the plan are both material outcomes from the NEPA challenge that can detrimentally impact environmental work - and the environmental work doesn't have the budget backing the project to plow through local NEPA opposition. Again, the environment isn't waiting pristine and unchanged while we dither. Time under the curve counts.
I don't know what to make of that MIT paper. Most utility scale projects are cancelled, even fossil fuel projects. Cancel rates aren't particularly interesting to be honest, the build rate is (last year there was a lot of celebration of climbing coal plant cancellations - even if the total number in service was still going up). The 15 year backlog for interconnect approvals is interesting. That new projects have to fund the interconnect and not the incumbents is interesting. The build rate isn't addressed here. There is a case to be made for improved early stage project visibility and tracking just juicing the cancellation rate - there should be some recognition of other outside effects. Into the methods, if you've landed on 26 features in your model you've probably not found a causal relationship (and you've overfit your data). You can't validate your hypothesis through root cause analysis. That's not actually an experiment, and with ML you should have a hold-out data set and perform the analysis against an out of training sample dataset to ensure you aren't just finding conscious thought in a dead salmon via FMRI. All of that is hard to do with only 53 cases in 28 states - individual strata and segments may only have t-test members. The name of MIT is doing a lot of the work here, no discussion of survivor bias either; knowingly discarding projects that got press without delays, and not reviewing all projects only the set of delayed are both signs of motivated reasoning. The identified key factors should be notably absent (or reduced in prevalence in a significant way) from those successful and clean projects and that work and cross-checking is not demonstrated here. Not every paper is a great , but I'd be reviewer #2 all over this one.
Great interview! Abby cited a few studies - one from MIT, one from the Forest Service and some others. Would it be possible to post links to them on the podcast page or somewhere else? Thanks!
Having been in government service dealing with environmental issues for 40 years. I am in full agreement with Abigail Dillen that NEPA is not the problem - as so often cited by the sponsors of bad projects. It is, in fact, an important part of the solution. I appreciate her reference to a couple of recent studies that support this conclusion. This is not to say that NEPA has not been misused to delay progress at times. But, too often, the real problem lies with project sponsors and project managers who avoid effective NEPA planning and review because they really do not want to hear the answer. My experience is that effective environmental planning and review - including effective public and stakeholder engagement - almost always improves a project. And we need to keep in mind that NEPA does not determine the decision on a project. It provides information that the decision makers can use to determine whether and how to proceed. I also agree that the agencies charged with carrying out the review are oftentimes woefully understaffed and under-resourced. Lastly, I have seen far more projects with sham NEPA processes than I have good projects that have been stymied or unduly delayed by NEPA review.
Seems EarthJustice is very interested in making it easy to sue (after all, that's what they do). And not interested in building renewables (they'll pay it lipservice, but they don't care, since that's not what they do). Disappointing.
At the end of Abby's interview, you guys talked about renewable energy doing harm to environmentally sensitive lands if the renewable power is located there. Abby thought that that there would be enough land to avoid environmentally sensitive lands. I agree with her in that with solar, for instance, a 62.3mile by 62.3 mile square of solar panels is all the USA needs to power the entire nation's end use electricity energy consumption (2019 value). And, solar can be used in virtually every USA state.