Talking About Permit Reform with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Feb 08, 2023 | LPP Blog

We recently joined five other experts to explore the nuances of the permit reform debate in an article published by the  Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  The article emphasized important, but often overlooked factors that affect permit timelines.

Our contribution, focused on the practical sources of delay in the permitting process—particularly insufficient staffing. “Projects hit bottlenecks when there are not enough staff (or staff with the right expertise) to review a proposed application.” For productive permit reform, Congress should focus on reducing bottlenecks instead of analytical rigor.

We also emphasized that permit reform should not emphasize speed over efficacy. “Careful reviews prevent bad projects. As the Boeing 737 Max tragedies demonstrated, speed is not everything. A permit system that devolves to rubber stamping does not keep people safe. Additionally, public participation helps avoid hasty actions that cause long-term problems. The New York Times recently published an article illustrating the risks of foregoing transparency. Fearful of delays caused by public participation, the National Park Service declined a public comment period when identifying the names for the Korean Wall of Remembrance. As a result, the wall contains thousands of errors. Fixing these avoidable mistakes may require rebuilding the wall, which was estimated to cost $22 million. This should serve as a cautionary tale for permit reform proposals. Making the right decision is more important than making a fast decision.

Jessica Lovering, who advocates for progressive nuclear policy, made a similar observation. She emphasized that public participation can be a solution—not a barrier—to project approval. Expediting energy construction by eliminating opportunities for local participation may have the opposite effect by eroding support for clean energy and creating a backlash against climate action. For that reason, she emphasized that “process matters” in permit reform.

As Dustin Mulvaney, a Fellow with the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines,  points out, “Many mistake other issues that may arise during environmental review (lack of finance, shifting market conditions, interconnection queues, supply chain disruptions) as evidence that environmental reviews are delaying clean energy and transmission projects.” In reality, most projects move through the environmental review process expeditiously.

Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist a Texas A&M, observed that clean energy projects often encounter delay from campaigns spearheaded and funded by fossil fuel interests. Like the Caesar Rodney Institute, which previously advocated for expedited approval of offshore oil drilling projects, and is now devoted to stopping offshore windfarms. These campaigns often use state laws and local zoning regulations to block projects. Identifying the source of delays is critical to permit reform. Eliminating federal environmental review will not expedite a project blocked by a local zoning regulations.

Sanjay Patnaik, the director of the Center on Regulation and Markets, recommended proactive planning for large renewable infrastructure projects, such as building on a map of low impact sites from the Environmental Protection Agency and a Nature Conservancy report identifying low conservation value lands. He also emphasized the importance of addressing staff shortages at federal agencies and encouraging multi-agency coordination through the Federal Permitting Council authorized through the FAST-41 Act.


Jamie Pleune is an Associate Professor of Law (Research) and a member of the Law and Policy Group in the Wallace Stegner Center.