Political observers are skeptical that any significant action is possible in the lame-duck Congress on Senate Democrat Joe Manchin’s legislative package to make energy project permitting more efficient.

But House Republicans appear to have an appetite to push through early in the next session legislation for more energy infrastructure and for a revamped environmental review process.

Chances of enacting Manchin’s permitting package are “slim to none” in the coming weeks, says Jimmy Christianson, vice president of government relations at the Associated General Contractors of America. 

The senator faces opposition not only from progressive Democrats, but also from many Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who was enraged that Manchin worked with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to provide the key vote to pass the Inflation Reduction Act in August, in exchange for assurance that significant permitting reform would pass before the current session's end. 

Manchin seeks to shorten the timeline for environmental reviews for energy projects, including natural gas projects like the stalled Mountain Valley pipeline. 

Manchin was said to be in talks this week with outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to find a vehicle for the permitting provisions. But those efforts seem to have failed thus far. On Dec. 7, the House Rules Committee released the text for the National Defense Authorization Act—one of the few must-pass bills remaining—without the Manchin language.  

With control of the House changing in just a few weeks, “from a political perspective, I don’t see why Republicans would want to negotiate at a level of lower leverage than in just a few weeks,” Christianson says.

A Different Take on Energy

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), likely to follow Pelosi as House Speaker in 2023, has said it is a priority to pass legislation that would boost domestic sources of energy, including natural gas, as well as increase U.S. mining and development of critical minerals for batteries and storage. 

Republicans have introduced bills to do that during the past year, as well as introducing the Builder Act, which would go further than Manchin’s bill to limit permit approval timelines and streamline environmental review processes. These bills could be the basis for an energy package early in the 2023 legislative year, Christianson says. 

Desmarie Waterhouse, American Public Power Association acting senior vice president of advocacy and general counsel, thinks the real test will be whether a bipartisan group of lawmakers will have the political will to work on another energy infrastructure bill.

“I think it will need to emanate from the Senate,” she says. “Is there a middle ground that they can get 60 votes for? It might be a hard effort, but I do think there is support for it.” The group traditionally has supported the concept of streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act review process while still ensuring that the environment is protected, she says. 

Waterhouse adds that there could be logjams in moving the groundswell of new projects being planned—a result of already-enacted laws—through the permit process without some type of reform. 

Lengthy environmental reviews will hold up not only natural gas pipelines and power plants, but also renewable energy projects and additional transmission lines the administration clearly wants. “The administration has clean energy goals that were evident through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, but it’s going to be hard to meet those goals if it takes a while to get infrastructure built because it takes so long to get things permitted,” says Waterhouse.

Laborers International Union of North America General President Terry O’Sullivan says energy infrastructure projects should be a bipartisan issue. 

“Our nation has a rich supply of domestic energy resources, and it’s vital that we are able to unlock these resources responsibly and with the highest of labor standards,” he says, adding that permitting reforms are critical. “When large-scale construction projects are delayed or stalled due to permitting issues, our members are out of work.”