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How the debt ceiling deal compromises on the environment

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK. The House is voting today on a deal to raise the country's debt ceiling. The Senate is expected to vote in the coming days. We are going to focus now on another element of that legislation because the deal also includes changes to a bedrock environmental law and approves a controversial natural gas pipeline. Jeff Brady from our climate desk is here. Hey, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: Hi. So this natural gas pipeline, the Mountain Valley pipeline, how did this end up in debt ceiling legislation?

BRADY: The short answer is compromise. With Republicans holding a narrow majority in the House and Democrats a narrow majority in the Senate, including approval for this Mountain Valley pipeline gives fossil fuel allies something they can claim as a victory. And that increases the number of lawmakers voting for the debt ceiling increase.

KELLY: Aha.

BRADY: Yeah. West Virginia's delegation wanted this, including a key Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin. This pipeline would transport natural gas from West Virginia about 300 miles south to North Carolina. The project has faced opposition from activists because it would be a contributor to climate change. And there have been court challenges from local landowner and environmental groups. Jean Su is with the Center for Biological Diversity, and she still hopes this provision will be removed before a final vote.

JEAN SU: The debt ceiling bill is here to actually deal with the country's debt and our fiscal issues, and we shouldn't have big pieces of pork shoved into this deal like the Mountain Valley pipeline.

BRADY: But the Biden administration has signaled in recent weeks that it supports finishing the pipeline for what it calls energy security reasons. Looks like adding this is a strategic move to gather enough support for the debt ceiling deal in the House and Senate.

KELLY: Meanwhile, the debt ceiling bill also includes changes I mentioned to one of the country's key environmental laws. Which one? What are the changes?

BRADY: It's the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. It's more than 50 years old, and it requires federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of projects before approving them. It also gives the public and interest groups the right to comment on that process. Both fossil fuel and even renewable energy developers think NEPA needs to be changed. They argue that it takes too long to get new projects built around the country, and this debt ceiling legislation puts time limits on environmental reviews. Even the most complicated reviews would have to be finished within two years, and it gives agencies more discretion to decide what projects trigger this type of NEPA process. So more projects could be exempt in the future.

KELLY: So hang on, if I'm hearing you right, that would make the review process go faster. That seems like a good thing.

BRADY: Well, environmental advocates say that these changes could also make it more difficult for people to participate, which is the whole gig with NEPA, especially folks from marginalized communities that have historically suffered the most harm from these big energy projects. Overall, though, these changes are much less dramatic than what Republicans in the House had pushed for. They wanted to rescind many of the clean energy tax credits that were part of that big climate-focused budget bill that passed last year.

KELLY: Also, upgrading the electric grid - the country's electric grid - was part of the negotiations for this deal on the debt ceiling. Where did that land?

BRADY: For the country to transition away from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy like wind and solar power, that's going to require building a lot more new transmission lines and other infrastructure. Democrats were hoping for something to make permitting that kind of - those kind of projects easier and faster. But in the end, the legislation includes just a study about transmission issues. The White House says talks about overhauling the country's permitting processes for big energy projects will continue, but that broader conversation is going to happen separately from efforts to get this debt ceiling legislation approved in the coming days.

KELLY: Jeff Brady from NPR's climate desk, thanks for your reporting.

BRADY: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER'S "HAT OF RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
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