A last-ditch effort by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to get a modest permitting reform measure attached to the $858-billion National Defense Authorization bill failed to win enough votes during Senate consideration of the bill Dec. 15—all but ending chances that significant reform to the environmental review process for energy infrastructure projects will occur before lawmakers leave for winter recess. 

The amendment attaching Manchin’s permitting legislation failed by a 47-47 vote, with the bill and a stop-gap spending bill sent on Dec. 16  to President Joe Biden for his signature. 

Manchin’s amendment would have required the president to identify 25 energy projects to be prioritized, with target end dates for environmental reviews and time limits for court reviews set. It also would have fast-tracked approval of the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline project. 

It would not go as far as some bills introduced by House Republicans earlier in the legislative session. 

“Permitting reform and the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline are essential to ensuring lasting American security and independence. Continued inaction will be felt by every American in every part of the country," said Manchin in a statement released shortly after the vote. "If I made a mistake anywhere along the way it was that I trusted my colleagues to rise above partisan politics and do what is best for our country. Instead they chose to kick the can down the road when America cannot afford to wait.” 

President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have publicly stated support for passage of Manchin’s legislation. But there is only one more vehicle to which the bill could be attached, the end-of-year omnibus spending bill. 

Steve Hall, vice president of government affairs for the American Council of Engineering Cos., says that chances are next to nil that permitting reform will be enacted in remaining days of the lame duck session. “There’s a possibility, but I think it’s a thin one at this point,” he said.

Hall says permitting reform is more likely to be negotiated in some form in 2023. House Republican leaders have said they plan to push a package of already-introduced energy bills early in the year, along with a more aggressive bill to shorten the length of environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects. 

Associated Builders and Contractors Vice President of Government Affairs Kristen Swearingen said in an email that her group favors the approach taken by the House GOP and will work in 2023 to support it. 

With a Democratic president and very tight margins in the Senate, what ultimately can actually pass both chambers and be signed into law may look a lot like what is in Manchin’s bill now, says Hall. 

Although ACEC is open to both what the House GOP is envisioning and more limited reform, “it’s a question of what’s doable,” says Hall. “What Sen. Manchin has laid forward is a reasonable approach to accomplishing that objective. It is a bit of a middle ground of where House Republicans want to see it and where Democrats want to go.”