Between Build Back Better, the Green New Deal and the infrastructure bill, there is no shortage of ambitious policy proposals to shift the US economy to a cleaner, more climate-friendly footing. These various programs share a policy structure in which tax incentives, grants, and other dollars are used to stimulate investment in climate technologies and infrastructure. However, investments in new research and infrastructure alone will not be enough to accelerate climate progress, as a web of regulatory approvals and permits will continue to hold back good projects. These rules, established over decades by many of the same voices that now claim a readiness to tackle climate issues, add cost and complexity to the development and deployment of new infrastructure, impeding the very progress we have need. A recent article by Alex Trembath, posted on City Journal, gives a name to this phenomenon: “cost-disease environmentalism”. Failure to address this will unnecessarily hamper the development of next-generation technologies and infrastructure.
“Cost-illness environmentalism” refers to the process of adopting policies aimed at stimulating demand, such as subsidies and tax incentives, without regard to solving the structural problems that impede supply. It’s a close cousin of NIMBY-ism (“not in my backyard”), driving policymakers to make the case for money to support clean energy adoption while supporting regulatory regimes that impede clean energy. authorization and construction of these very clean energy projects. The most obvious culprit is the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and the variety of accompanying state-level laws enacting its requirements. These regulations are designed to ensure that new developments of all types consider the environment as part of the permitting and approval process. A noble goal, to be sure, but over time many have learned to weaponize these laws under the guise of “protecting local character” or “maintaining local control” in order to discourage or disrupt any development. The California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), enacted by Ronald Reagan, was used to block any cycle paths for registrations increase at UC Berkeley. Many have lamented the inability of the United States to build major infrastructure like China or Europe are doing; one of the main reasons is the regulatory burden.
These laws have been a cornerstone of the environmental movement for nearly half a century and are widely regarded by environmentalists as sacred protectors of the air we breathe and the water we drink. Conversations about massive changes to these programs are dismissed as being driven by a deregulation agenda aimed at plundering the natural world. examples of polluting projects this would have been illuminated if the protections provided by these laws had not been used to justify their existence. The problem is that these laws, enacted to defend the environment, are instead routinely used to defend the status quo. Why protect the status quo when it plays a key role in destroying the planet?
Environmental regulation should aim to achieve the cleaner world we seek, not freeze the world as we have it today. Projects with clear climate merit should benefit from a streamlined permitting and approval process, without the risk of protracted legal battles and delays. Moderate innovations in regulatory policy would reduce the cost and risk of developing climate-friendly projects, spurring investment and deployment without having to spend a single taxpayer dollar.
There are examples of this working. In California, residential rooftop solar has experienced explosive growth over the past decade, in part due to demand-side financial incentives, including the Federal Investment Tax Credit and the Metering Program. net energy at the state level. But supply-side reforms that eased the licensing process for residential solar also played a big role in driving adoption. California established a standard permit application for residential solar. When followed, a departmental peer review is the only approval required. Various laws have removed laborious planning department approvals, removed HOA restrictions on solar power, exempted solar system value from property tax adjustments, and removed the need for structural engineers, electrical engineers, and other specialists to develop and submit a permit. A costly, weeks-long process that cost thousands of dollars in time and expense has been replaced with a “standard plan” model that takes less than an hour and is approved over-the-counter.
Further actions of this type are necessary. Tax breaks, subsidies and government incentives for new technologies and new projects are necessary and welcome supports for the climate movement; To realize the full impact of these dollars, they need to be coupled with a regulatory framework that streamlines project approvals and permits for climate infrastructure.