A False Choice: Slow Environmental Standards or a Rapid Transition to Renewable Energy

New Roosevelt Institute brief finds that reforms targeting staffing shortages, coordination between permitting bodies, and proactive stakeholder engagement will be most effective in streamlining the permitting process

May 24, 2023
Ariela Weinberger
(202) 412-4270

New York, NY — ​​As Congress again engages in irresponsible debt ceiling brinkmanship, one of the many policy issues to be pulled into the debate is “permitting reform”—legislation intended to speed up the development of energy projects by cutting community and environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These cuts have been framed as essential to speed up the renewable transition, but new research shows that this is a false trade-off. Slashing NEPA protections will cause environmental and social harm (such as exacerbating racial and environmental injustice in frontline communities) without addressing the true causes of delay.

Choosing between Environmental Standards and a Rapid Transition to Renewable Energy Is a False Dilemma,” a new Roosevelt Institute issue brief by Jamie Pleune, associate professor of law at the University of Utah, debunks the claim that NEPA-mandated analysis is the primary source of permitting delays. Pleune finds that the true sources of delay are a lack of agency capacity, unstable budgets, waiting for information from developers, and poor coordination between permitting authorities.

“My colleagues and I did one of the most comprehensive empirical studies of NEPA delays. After examining 41,000 NEPA decisions conducted by the Forest Service over 16 years, we found limited correlation between the intensity of the NEPA process in question and the existence of delays,” said Pleune. “Furthermore, some projects that were eligible for expedited analyses encountered delays, while some intensely studied projects were completed quickly. This indicated that the true causes of delay were external to the regulatory requirements of NEPA.”

The brief also offers progressive reforms that address these sources of delay and will help to speed up the review process without compromising environmental protections or communities’ right to engage with infrastructure projects that impact their own physical and economic well-being. These include:

  • Building agency capacity with long-term funding and strategic workforce planning;
  • Early stakeholder engagement of communities and regulators; and
  • Permit sequencing and transparent schedules.

“Reducing analytical rigor or weakening environmental standards, which are some of the permitting reforms on the table in debt ceiling talks, won’t address the true blockages to the build-out of renewables. In my brief, I provide progressive permitting reform, with demonstrated effectiveness, that will strengthen and improve NEPA processes while preserving community engagement and environmental protections,” said Pleune.

The brief closes with a reminder of what is at stake: The climate crisis requires prompt attention, and efficiency in permitting is paramount. But we should not sacrifice standards designed to protect human health, safety, property, and the environment to achieve this goal.


To learn more about the need for permitting reform that centers climate justice and highlights progressive ideas for how to hasten the green transition, click here.

And to learn more about what’s at stake in the debt ceiling negotiations, please review the latest blog series from economic and legal experts click here.