Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, shown here addressing an audience in New Orleans in February 2023, testified before the U.S. Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday, July 26. Edwards told senators that his state is particularly vulnerable to climate change and contributes more carbon emissions than most states. (Greg LaRose | Louisiana Illuminator)
The changing climate is hurting infrastructure and the national economy, members of a U.S. Senate panel and experts said Wednesday.
Members of both parties on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee agreed at a Wednesday hearing on the need for more resilient infrastructure that could withstand the pressures of a changing climate. They also agreed speeding up the process for gaining federal approval for large infrastructure and energy projects would be helpful.
Democrats voiced support for taking steps to reduce carbon emissions, while Republicans mostly ignored that issue or said it would be a waste. Among those testifying was Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, who said his state is particularly vulnerable to climate change and contributes more carbon emissions than most states.
U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse cited several examples from across the country of extreme weather damaging infrastructure.
Excessive heat has led to roads buckling in Oregon, Texas and Utah, he said. Utilities have preemptively shut off power lines to avoid wildfires in the West. Drought in the Midwest brought water levels so low that river barges got stuck.
Those examples and others hurt economic activity, Whitehouse said.
The Rhode Island Democrat advocated for a two-track approach to build more resilient power lines, bridges, sewer systems, levees and other infrastructure, and to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Repeatedly, this committee has heard expert testimony about the massive economic and fiscal costs of dawdling,” he said. “Those dangers are clear and present. I hope that the message is getting through: This is real.”
Whitehouse praised state-level efforts in Louisiana for its coastal resiliency planning and Iowa for promoting wind power. Nearly two-thirds of Iowa’s energy production now comes from wind, Whitehouse said.
Republicans question priorities
The ranking Republican on the panel, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, said he was supportive of climate change policies — including the wind power tax credit he championed that was helpful to his state’s wide-scale adoption of wind energy — but that the committee was overly focused on the issue.
Wednesday’s hearing was one in a series held by Whitehouse, known as one of the Senate’s most aggressive climate hawks, while the core mission of the Budget Committee has gone unaddressed, Grassley said.
“Our nation is over $32 trillion in debt, yet this committee is holding the 11th hearing on climate change,” he said. “Our spending is out of control and Democrats haven’t written a budget in the past two years.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, characterized attempts to limit carbon emissions as useless.
The Inflation Reduction Act — the law Democrats passed last year that includes hundreds of billions for renewable energy tax credits and other climate priorities — could cost the federal government $1.2 trillion, according to some estimates, Johnson said.
“I have no idea where that money’s going to be spent,” Johnson said. “If it’s going to be spent trying to mitigate climate change, I would argue it’s probably going to be misspent because I don’t think there’s anything we can really do to hold back the tides.”
The government should instead spend a fraction of that money to make sure the electric grid is reliable and resilient, even in the face of natural disasters, Johnson said.
Louisiana’s Edwards told senators he has prioritized both limiting emissions and preparing infrastructure for extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, that are linked to climate change.
Asked by Johnson if it wouldn’t be more effective to focus on infrastructure resilience rather than limiting carbon emissions, Edwards said he had a difference of opinion with Johnson.
“I think we need to be acting on both fronts,” he said.
Johnson implied that a U.S. transition away from fossil fuels would not affect the carbon emissions of rapidly developing countries like China and India. Limiting fossil fuel production ignores the current economic reality, he said.
But Edwards said looking to renewable energy sources would be a wise long-term strategy.
“I’m not an enemy of fossil fuels,” he said. “We’ve been a fossil fuel state for over 100 years. But it’s clear to me if we’re going to be an energy state in the next 50 years, we’re going to embrace the transition. We will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, increase our reliance on clean energy such as wind.”
Hopes remain for permitting overhaul
But those changes were insufficient to speed up projects that are hampered by administrative delays and legal challenges, according to Alex Herrgott, the leader of The Permitting Institute, a group that advocates for easier permitting requirements.
To see real change, lawmakers would have to alter bedrock environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and the Clean Water Act, he said.
“In practice, developers will still experience most of the same obstacles and avoidable process delays that have plagued the system for decades,” Herrgott told the panel. “Truly impactful legislation will have to move beyond macro-level NEPA changes and untangle the web of confusion and uncertainty.”
Herrgott, who led the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council under former President Donald Trump, said the issue was nonpartisan.
“This is not a Republican or a Democrat issue,” he said. “It is a process issue we can fix.”
Whitehouse said he had “not given up hope on bipartisan permitting reform” passing Congress this year.
Several Democrats on the panel, including Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, said renewable energy projects and their associated transmission lines, as well as resilient infrastructure projects, were stymied by a lengthy permitting process.
“I think many Democrats want to do permitting reform,” Kaine said.
Republicans on the panel also said they supported a permitting overhaul as part of a climate change agenda.
“Just like fossil fuel projects, renewable projects, face years of permitting delays,” Grassley said. “Why shouldn’t permitting reform be at the top list of anyone concerned about climate change?”
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