Biden's climate chief: 'Delays and bottlenecks' slowing IRA spending

Speeding up the permitting process a top priority for the Biden administration, says John Podesta

John Podesta, the U.S. President Joe Biden's senior advisor for clean energy, delivers a speech during the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2023.  REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
John Podesta, U.S. President Joe Biden's senior advisor for clean energy, delivers a speech during the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2023. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

U.S. President Joe Biden's top climate advisor says the United States needs to build electricity lines at double the current pace, blaming a sluggish permitting process for delaying vital arteries for the nation's clean energy transition.

"On average, interstate gas pipelines that require environmental impact statements are approved nearly twice as fast as transmission lines requiring the same," John Podesta told energy executives at the CERAWeek by S&P Global conference on Monday. "We don't have that time."

The US$369 billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is the cornerstone of the Biden administration's climate policy. The legislation includes tax credits for electric vehicles, home solar panels, more efficient appliances, as well as measures to support grid-scale batteries and wind turbines. As senior advisor to the president for clean energy innovation and implementation, Podesta is tasked with deploying those funds.

"In just the battery industry alone, companies have announced over US$75 billion in investments for new and expanded domestic manufacturing since President Biden took office. US$28 billion of that has been in just the past six months," he said at the annual event in Houston, TX.

However, when it comes to building new electricity lines and other projects, he describes a permitting process "plagued by delays and bottlenecks."

"Plenty of delays happen at the state and local levels, and those need to be addressed. But there is plenty that we can do and must do federally," Podesta said, adding that he and U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm are tracking the pace of more than 20 key electricity transmission projects.

Podesta says the IRA includes funding to improve state and local permitting processes, but implementing the bill's 135 separate programs has been challenging.

"We can move faster by setting tight deadlines for agencies to complete environmental reviews. We can move smarter by making it easier to approve projects with low environmental impact," he said. "And we can move strategically by improving basic information sharing amongst agencies, and quality standards for project approvals. And by listening to local communities earlier in the process to keep the infrastructure project out of court."

Podesta says speeding up the permitting process within the bounds of "rigorous scientific standards" is a top priority for the Biden administration.

"I've worked in three White Houses. Permitting has never been a top priority for senior administration officials in the past. Now, thanks to President Biden, it is."

While he laments the IRA's slower-moving elements, international speakers at CERAWeek continue to see the legislation as a major driver of U.S. investment that puts pressure on other governments to roll out their own large-scale clean energy incentives.

"The U.S. IRA has given you a simple, very immediately addressable incentive scheme," Sanjiv Lamba, CEO of U.K.-based energy company Linde, said at CERAWeek on Monday.

In Canada, oil and gas companies, and other energy stakeholders, are looking to Ottawa to make its clean energy and emissions reduction incentives more competitive with U.S. offerings. Enbridge (ENB.TO)(ENB) CEO Greg Ebel says he would like to see that happen in the upcoming federal budget.

"They've really put a lot of carrots on the table in terms of promoting people to invest," Ebel said of the Biden administration in a recent interview.

"I think that's going to be very well received by the industry (in Canada)."

Jeff Lagerquist is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow him on Twitter @jefflagerquist.

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