US prospects for permitting overhaul dwindle

  • Market: Crude oil, Natural gas, Oil products, Pipe and tube
  • 20/11/23

Oil and business groups' hopes that the US Congress could fast-track permitting this year are rapidly fading, with Republicans consumed by infighting and a key Democrat openly flirting with a presidential run.

The prospect of meaningful permitting legislation passing this year was always a long shot, given deep divides on the issue and the current split in the control of Congress. But industry hoped a deal could arise, with Democrats trying to fast-track clean energy projects funded by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and Republicans seeking to remove obstacles to new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Permitting reform advocates concede a deal is unlikely to emerge any time soon, given scant progress on the issue so far, and as Congress heads into an election year where any deal would be much more difficult to pass. "I am not optimistic of anything passing this year," Republican-leaning non-profit Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions president Heather Reams says.

In another headwind to a possible deal, Democratic West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who leads the Senate's energy committee, earlier this month said he would not run for re-election in 2024 but will be "travelling the country" to mobilise moderate voters. Manchin has been a top negotiator on permitting and energy issues, including parts of the IRA that restarted oil and gas leasing on federal land and the US Gulf of Mexico. Manchin says he is "absolutely" considering a run for the White House, adding a potential complication to President Joe Biden's re-election bid.

Permitting negotiations had already become stuck in early summer after Congress was able to pass modest permitting changes as part of a bipartisan debt limit law. After the enactment of those changes, the issues left outstanding are more politically thorny, such as energy sector demands for judicial reform to make it harder to bring lawsuits against permitting, or changes to the Clean Water Act sought by the gas sector and opposed by environmentalists and some states.

And the signing of the debt limit law came before far-right Republicans paralysed the US House of Representatives last month by removing Kevin McCarthy as speaker. The infighting shows no sign of easing. House Republicans last week blocked votes on their party's own spending bills. The new speaker Mike Johnson had to rely on Democrats to prevent a government shutdown after 17 November, and Congress is on track to spend the next two months trying to stop a shutdown from 20 January. Far-right House Republicans have held up work as they demand spending cuts and policy changes as a condition to keep the government open.

One event away

Oil and gas executives are holding out hope for permitting changes they say are essential to supporting the industry's growth, including supplying gas to LNG export facilities being developed on the US Gulf coast. An energy crisis, such as a spike in prices, could create the political pressure needed to pass legislation, US gas producer EQT chief executive Toby Rice told an industry conference last month. "We're one event away from something happening. You have one event, you get to reality real quick and you start getting stuff built," Rice said, giving the example ofLNG terminal permitting in Germany after the onset of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Congress is set to finish the year having passed some modest permitting tweaks as part of the debt limit agreement. The law will allow the $7.2bn Mountain Valley Pipeline to be completed, enabling the transport of natural gas from West Virginia, and it has expanded the use of "categorical exclusions" that fast-track reviews. But the impasse over broader legislation will put pressure on the White House to pursue changes that allow faster permitting, such as federal initiatives to build out long-distance electric transmission projects to add renewables to the grid.


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