Permitting Reform and Insights into (Some) Progressive Views

From Marcela Mulholland’s presentation at the Ecomodernism 2022 conference

Last month, I attended a Breakthrough Institute conference in Middleburg, Virginia. You may have heard of BTI, they promote “ecomodernism.” More on some of their ideas later.

What I like about them is that they are fans of technical solutions to environmental problems- I don’t always agree with them, but they have interesting and unique albeit Coastal, views of the world. Plus, where else can you be at a conference with people from the fusion community, as in energy, not dining.  And they gave me a geographic diversity scholarship to attend, as I am neither from a Coast, nor a member of any elite.

Anyway, permitting reform was on their agenda. “Permitting reform” is a current term used to talk about removing unnecessary obstacles to building needed infrastructure. The difficulty, as we know, is agreeing on what is “unnecessary” and what is “needed.”

It was fascinating to see the perspectives of people way outside our world.  Below is the information about this session and here is a link to the video.

As the nation’s halting attempts to build high-speed rail, nuclear power plants, high-voltage transmission lines, and solar and wind farms reveal, the obstacles to decarbonization stem less from the availability of low-carbon technology than from the capacity for siting, permitting, and building the necessary infrastructure. High-level proposals to address this problem have come from “supply-side progressivism,” “state-capacity libertarianism,” neoliberalism, and beyond. This panel will feature a variety of ideological perspectives on the policy and coalitional imperatives to be sorted out before any such supply-side agenda can be effectively pursued.

Eli Dourado, Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity, Utah State University

Marcela Mulholland, Political Director, Data for Progress

Jeremiah Johnson, Policy Director, The Neoliberal Project

Jared DeWese, Deputy Director for Communications, Third Way Energy

From the Forest Service historical NEPA perspective, it was fascinating to listen to speakers talk about NEPA. Some of Eli Dourado’s comments (the libertarian), even reminded me of Sally Fairfax’s article in Science in 1978. He suggested , developing more substantive environmental statutes and reducing the emphasis on NEPA.  He also suggested getting rid of NEPA but he is a libertarian..

However, as we know ESA can also be used to slow down or stop projects, so I don’t think it’s that simple.

I thought the most interesting talk was given by Marcela Mulholland, the Political Director of Data for Progress, a progressive polling group.
Her presentation (20:10 ) was fun..
Here she talks some (other) progressives’ views (48:48) “more staffing, no other changes are necessary,” and (51:30) changing agency culture. I think she has a point but that is indeed difficult.

1:04 and on .. there’s a discussion how to get community input without slowing things down too much.

And in the Q&A, there’s even a comment about NEPA being a “decision-making tool”, which may remind FS folks of the Decision Protocol and other efforts. I suggested that policy solutions involve agency NEPA practitioners as sources of information..

As a result, attendees asked for a summary of what we have learned. I think “there’s too much!” say the results of the EADM workshops, and “there’s too little”.. where out there might be a 20 page history of agency efforts, at least from Process Predicament on, what was tried and how it worked.  So I am stuck and would like to respond to his question. Does anyone have any suggestions?

6 thoughts on “Permitting Reform and Insights into (Some) Progressive Views”

  1. It isn’t community input that slows the decision process. It’s serial litigation. IMHO, Congress should bulletproof collaboratively developed forest restoration projects from legal wrangling. Arbitration might be helpful, but litigators have steadfastly refused to come to the table. Why? Because suing at taxpayer expenses under the EAJA model is very lucrative.

    • Jim, I’m not sure that’s the reason.. many outfits that sue have plenty of bucks. I think it’s more like choosing the best battlefield. I think arbitration would be an interesting pilot because we all could see how it actually works in practice for these kinds of issues.

  2. I think this whole meeting is based on the underlying assumption that Federal agencies are the ones slowing things down as part of the NEPA process. Yet, as someone often leading planning efforts for Infrastructure projects, project timelines are most often delayed as a result of waiting on the proponent. I’m often dealing with general plans that lack specific information. Most infrastructure projects involve waiting for months forthe proponent to provide detailed design information at several stages in the process, so the likely effects can be disclosed and discussed. It seems focusing our resources on technical transfer/assistance for reforming infrastructure to help these proponents with the design information would be the most beneficial for a faster timeline with these types of projects imo.

    • Thanks for your perspective, Mike! I wonder if other “speeding” ideas like DOT projects have figured out standardized templates?

  3. “they have interesting and unique albeit Coastal, views”

    That makes “Coastal” sound kind of pejorative. (One definition of “coastal elites” I found is that it is “used by conservative pundits to pejoratively describe people from liberal cities with different values from those in the heartland.”)

    The second gatekeeper asks, “Is it helpful?” The third gatekeeper asks, “Is it kind?”

    • Yes I think it is helpful and it is kind, because the folks at BTI refer to themselves as Coastal elites. At a previous webinar, they said something like “we’re just Coastal elites talking to each other.” So I assumed if they used it about themselves, then it was OK for me to use it about them. It’s not intended to be pejorative. One of the areas I disagree with the folks at BTI is about lab grown meats. If your neighbors do not raise beef in areas that are obviously not suited for food crops, it’s easier to say “hey let’s just stop raising beef and convert to soybeans or vegetables.”

      Or equivalently, if there were Rural Interior Elites, we might not be as concerned with say, coastal flooding and earthquakes. That’s not pejorative, I think place matters.


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