In February, AAPG partnered with the Society of Petroleum Engineers and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists to conduct the Energy in Transition Symposium in Washington, D.C.
Hosted by the Embassy of Canada in the U.S. capital, and with the financial support of the AAPG Foundation and other sponsors, the focus of the symposium to communicate the important role of subsurface science and engineering as global energy systems continue to evolve.
The target audience for this one-day event was senior technical leaders and policymakers from the U.S. federal government (executive and legislative), think tanks, associations and others in the federal capital community who work with the oil and natural gas and energy community. You can learn more about the event in the summary published in this issue.
One term that came up repeatedly was “steel in the ground.” The point being that without someone building something, none of this talk of energy transition, more resilient energy systems or energy security creates any tangible results.
Yet, in the United States today, the process to get anything permitted is excruciatingly slow. And at CERAWeek in March, that issue was a major topic of conversation.
In fact, it was an area of consensus for both industry speakers and Biden administration officials, because what good is a major federal investment in infrastructure if it takes nearly a decade – if ever – to get these projects through the federal approval process?
Too Many Ways to Say ‘No’
Admittedly, they’re coming at this from different directions.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s desire for permitting reform focused on siting electricity transmission lines, signing geothermal leases and encouraging CCUS demonstrations.
The ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska illustrated the oil and gas example. ConocoPhillips acquired its first leases in the area in 1999 and “began the development permitting process in 2018.” It took until March 2023 “including more than 215 days of public comment and 25 in-person public meetings” in Alaska for a favorable decision.
There are far too many ways to say “no” to a project in the United States, making it very difficult to get to “yes,” as one CERAWeek speaker put it.
In late March, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in on the issue, with more than 350 organizations from nearly every sector of the U.S. economy “calling on Congress to ‘Permit America to Build’ by passing meaningful, durable permitting reform before the end of summer.”
Acknowledging that the organizations who support this call “may have differing perspectives on how Congress should address the permitting challenge, there is consensus that a modernized permitting process requires:
- Predictability: Project developers and financiers must have an appropriate level of certainty regarding the scope and timeline for project reviews, including any related judicial review.
- Efficiency: Interagency coordination must be improved to optimize public and private resources while driving better environmental and community outcomes.
- Transparency: Project sponsors and the public must have visibility into the project permitting milestones and schedule through an easily accessible public means.
- Stakeholder input: All relevant stakeholders must be adequately informed and have the opportunity to provide input within a reasonable and consistent timeframe.”
“It takes too long to build things in America,” wrote Martin Durbin, the U.S. Chamber’s senior vice president of policy and president of its Global Energy Institute, in early April.
“Congress has made unprecedented investments in recent years to incentivize new and resilient infrastructure,” he continued. “Those opportunities, however, cannot be fully realized without an effective modernization of our arcane and outdated federal permitting process.”
First enacted in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act with “only minor updates,” Durbin wrote, “our federal permitting process has only gotten worse, adding complexity and bureaucratic red tape and empowering project opponents of all kinds to delay action through the courts.”
What are the chances that something like NEPA reform could occur, particularly by the end of summer?
In response to a skeptical questioner at CERAWeek, Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, observed that both sides of the political aisle would like to see movement on NEPA reform and both sides of the aisle must address raising the U.S. national debt ceiling. Could there be a grand bargain struck to accomplish both goals?
It doesn’t sound like it, based on recent rhetoric from Washington, D.C. where raising the debt ceiling doesn’t include any public discussion about permitting reform. But the opportunity, Durbin observed, is that “greater certainty in the permitting process could unleash private sector investment to build the infrastructure, and the economy of the future.”
We know, from experience, that the time U.S. policymakers need to solve a problem is precisely equal to the time available – and stranger things have happened. Stay tuned.