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July 14, 2022

The Dynamo of Democracy

Time to get out of our own way.

We can have it all. We can bankrupt Putin. We can have affordable energy for our citizens and the Europeans who will otherwise surrender to energy blackmail. We can even reach zero net emissions in a reasonable amount of time. We can be not only the arsenal but the dynamo of democracy.

We’re not on track to do any of these good things. We’re standing squarely in our own way.

Our problem is an inability to build anything significant in real time. It takes decades to build a highway or new train track. Pipelines don’t get built at all in the US anymore. The 100-year-old electrical grid is sparking wildfires and isn’t in the right places to let us use renewable energy effectively. We need nuclear power as a clean source of electricity if we want to electrify most things, but “it’ll take forever to build new nuclear plants.” Offshore oil and gas wells and wind turbines make sense. Good luck in getting them built. During the great recession of 2008, we allocated almost a trillion dollars for recovery and found that nothing in America is shovel ready. No significant new infrastructure got built.

Construction isn’t the problem. Most things only take a year or two to design and two years to build. Bridges that fall are replaced within two years. Vermont replaced its roads wiped out by Tropical Storm Irene in less than a year. Ukraine replaces bombed rail lines almost overnight. China started building the fast train between Beijing and Shanghai as a public work to counter worldwide recession in 2008. I rode that train in 2011.

Even permitting is only part of the problem. Initial hearings often take up two years. That could be cut to one but permitting isn’t the cause of most of the delay.

Post-permit delays have crippled the ability of our country to build. Once a permit has been issued, the appeals begin. The appellants ask for and obtain restraining orders to stop construction. At almost no cost to themselves, anyone can impose the enormous cost of infrastructure delay on the builders and on the country which must do without the needed infrastructure. After the first decade of delays, the opponents start to claim – correctly – that the design is out of date. The builders either stick with the outmoded design or risk resetting the clock by redesigning and reentering the permit process.

Once the legal appeals have been exhausted, the illegal protests start. If it’s a big enough project, you can count on some Hollywood celebrities showing up in front of the cameras with locals who are affected by the project and politicians calling for further study. A new administration can score political points by reversing permits given by its predecessor (see the Keystone Pipeline). BTW, the real opponents of a project – the ones who put up money to stop it – are often commercial competitors; they try to stay away from the cameras. Fossil fuel companies and solar promoters don’t like wind turbines; green entrepreneurs don’t like gas pipelines. None of them like nuclear.

Here’s a pathetic example of tolerating intolerable delay. The US Forest Service uses controlled burns to prevent massive wildfires. These controlled burns require permits. The Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center published a report.

“Once the Forest Service initiates the environmental review process, it takes ​​an average of 3.6 years to begin a mechanical treatment and 4.7 years to begin a prescribed burn.

“For projects that require environmental impact statements—the most rigorous form of review—the time from initiation to implementation averages 5.3 years for mechanical treatments and 7.2 years for prescribed burns.”

If a project is appealed, the average time goes up to 9.4 years! Of course what really happens is the forests which needed the treatment often go up in smoke in the meantime.

The three-step fix

  1. All federal permits must be issued or denied within 18 months of application. The requirements must be rigid but predictable.
  2. We must restate and reassert federal primacy in all interstate projects. This used to be the rule and it is what Constitution provides for. Politics eroded this so, for example, NY State was allowed to block federally approved pipeline projects to bring much-needed Marcellus gas to New England because that’s what Cuomo wanted.
  3. No injunctions or restraining orders can be issued for permitted projects unless the opponents post a bond equal to the likely public and private cost of delay. If the appeal succeeds, the project stops (or is changed) and the bond is returned with interest. If the appeal fails, the bond reimburses the cost of delay.

No project will be perfect. Some will be seriously flawed. The cost of the flaws will be far, far less than the cost of delay.

Only Congress can pass these reforms. They are not partisan issues any more than forest fires are. These delays affect our ability to generate and use carbon-free energy as much or more than our ability to use clean natural gas and keep home heating and travel affordable. We can’t build back better if we can’t build at all. It would be great if Congress would start to act now. Given the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v EPA, congresspeople can no longer hope that nameless bureaucrats will take on policy issues that are politically risky to address. These elected congresspeople must make tough decisions themselves. That is what we pay them to do.

We run a good chance of both great economic hardship and western democracies succumbing to energy blackmail if we don’t immediately get our act together.

If we do pass reforms which let us build again, we won’t need federal funds for most infrastructure projects. Private money will rush in to fund good projects once the threat of unpredictable delay is gone. We will build back much, much better. We will have affordable energy, good roads, new railroads, and pipelines, and the electric grid we need as well as less catastrophic forest fires and a cleaner environment. We will be the dynamo democracy needs.

See also:

Keeping Our Republic

Confessions of a Stimulator

Jobs Rx: Make America Shovel Ready

Everything is Shovel-Ready in China

Let’s Really Build the Electric Grid Back BETTER

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