Published: July 25, 2023 | Updated: July 24, 2023

COMMENTARY: Congress needs to pass comprehensive permitting reform, now

Thomas J. Madison Jr.

Thomas J. Madison Jr.

America is stuck in a perpetual permitting crisis. It inhibits our ability to deliver the critical infrastructure our country needs to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world.

There is growing bipartisan recognition that to rebuild and modernize our infrastructure and supply chains — from roads and bridges to renewable projects and the mines that supply them — we must have permitting reform. And there is some progress to report. Targeted changes in the debt-ceiling deal — such as tightening the scope and timetable for environmental reviews — are important steps forward. But we shouldn’t declare “mission accomplished” just yet. Half-measures won’t deliver the change we need.

Just consider how long the average permitting process lingers in America today. According to government data, it takes an average of 5.3 years for a public transportation project to obtain the necessary federal permits to move forward. For sizable road and bridge improvements, that timeframe grows to 7.4 years. Permitting for high-voltage transmission lines — essential to connecting renewable energy to urban demand centers — is absurd. For example, a new 732-mile transmission line to move wind energy from the plains of Wyoming to four other states took a mind-boggling 16 years to permit.

The track record to approve and advance American mining projects is equally abysmal. Mine permitting routinely takes a decade or more, if projects are approved at all. Such delays produce grave consequences for supply chain security and hinder our national aspirations to deploy clean energy.

Mineral supply constraints already impose substantial inflationary pressure on critically important clean energy technologies — including the lithium-ion batteries at the heart of the electric vehicle revolution. This comes at a time when mineral demand is poised to grow exponentially. By 2040 the demand for lithium is projected to be 40 times greater than it is today. Graphite, cobalt, and nickel demand are expected to increase 25-fold. Copper demand will more than double. Despite these forecasts, domestic mining projects continue to face outdated and unwarranted permitting constraints at every turn.

As John Podesta, a Senior Advisor to President Joe Biden, recently remarked about the barriers to clean energy supply chains, “we got so good at stopping projects that we forgot how to build things in America.”

That is our current reality, and it must change — now. Congress needs to leverage the momentum created by the recent debt ceiling deal to pass a comprehensive permitting reform package that addresses everything from the onerous timing and scope of legal reviews to much-needed clarity on water permits.

There is strong bipartisan agreement in Washington that America must get building again. But funding alone can’t adequately address this challenge. We must ensure that the billions in funding provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act don’t get diluted — or wasted altogether — when desperately needed projects sink even deeper into permitting quicksand.

Our self-imposed permitting delays mean lost economic opportunity, increased energy insecurity, eroding global competitiveness, and the inability to effectively address climate change. Furthermore, when regulatory bottlenecks become too onerous within our borders, we inevitably increase reliance on imported materials, thereby ceding essential industries to our rivals as community-supporting American jobs and industries evaporate. Congress must immediately unwind this self-made crisis.

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Thomas J. Madison Jr. is an infrastructure consultant and the former administrator of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.