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By Dean Scott
Aug. 14 — Senate efforts to streamline environmental permitting for major energy and other projects and to overturn President Barack Obama's ban on funding overseas coal-fired power plants stalled just before Congress left for its August recess, but they are likely to get another look from the House and Senate this fall.
Both the permitting and coal-fired power plant funding provisions now rest in the Senate's six-year highway funding bill (H.R. 22), which the Senate approved July 30 but then quickly shelved so that it could move a short-term funding bill extension (H.R. 3236) to keep the highway trust fund running through Oct. 29.
But House-Senate negotiations are to resume this fall on a long-term highway bill, which means supporters of both the streamlined permitting proposal and reversal of Obama's ban on funding for overseas coal-fired power plants are better positioned going into those negotiations.
Proponents of streamlining federal environmental permitting, led by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), are claiming at least a partial victory. Portman, for example, has for years come up empty-handed in his efforts to revamp the National Environmental Policy Act to address complaints of projects being mired in permit reviews, sometimes from multiple agencies. The 1970 law determines how permitting and environmental reviews are conducted for projects requiring environmental assessments.
But the latest Portman-McCaskill bill, the Federal Permitting Improvement Act (S. 280), easily passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee May 6 with unanimous Democratic support. That prompted Portman to eye several routes to a floor vote, including attaching the proposal to other legislation headed to the floor.
A Portman spokeswoman said that while the Ohio Republican is optimistic, the fate of the permitting section, now resting in a expedited permitting title in the Senate highway bill, will depend on it surviving House and Senate negotiations over competing long-term highway bills in the months ahead.
“We will try to keep it in the transportation package and think it has a good shot because of its bipartisan support,” she told Bloomberg BNA of the permitting title. It is aimed at reducing delays that have stalled major infrastructure and energy projects and would give a new presidential appointee the authority to coordinate federal permitting now overseen by multiple agencies and departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency.
It also would limit the amount of time opponents to a project have to challenge a permit action in court.
Efforts to reverse Obama's ban on U.S. funding of overseas coal-fired power plants face a more significant challenge, because the reversal—a provision barring the U.S. Ex-Import Bank from “discriminating” against projects that rely on fossil fuels—was contained in a 23-page amendment largely concerned with reviving the bank. The Senate adopted the amendment, offered by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), on July 27, to its long-term highway funding bill by a vote of 64-29, a clear demonstration of the Senate's support for keeping the credit export agency alive.
The coal-related language in Kirk's amendment would nullify Obama administration guidance barring the bank from providing funding for new coal-fired power plants in developing nations unless they capture and store their carbon dioxide. Obama first pledged to withhold U.S. funding of any fossil-fuel power plants in 2013 under his climate action plan, a basket of regulatory and other policies targeting greenhouse gas emissions using executive branch authority.
That international climate policy has since been implemented through policy guidance issued by the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Treasury Department.
But complicating the outlook for the coal plant funding language is deep animosity to the bank's revival in the House. Many Republicans there have vowed to kill the bank, which they view as a form of corporate welfare benefiting some U.S. corporations over others.
There are several options House Republicans could take, according to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). The House could reject the Senate language to revive the Export-Import Bank and still support language to overturn Obama's ban on funding for overseas coal-fired power plants. The House also could seek to overturn's Obama's climate policy in separate legislation or amendments apart from negotiations over long-term highway funding, he told reporters July 27.
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