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Politics

The Climate Coalition Is Threatening to Split Apart

Why permitting reform could break the political alliance that produced America’s most significant climate law

Protesters, the Capitol, and clean energy.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The U.S. climate coalition is under serious strain.

The tension has been brought to a head by last month’s debt-ceiling compromise, which enacted a variety of reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act and exempted the long-debated Mountain Valley Pipeline from federal environmental review. While environmental groups have decried the concessions as “a colossal error … that sacrifices the climate,” clean-energy trade groups are praising them “an important down payment on much-needed reforms.” This gulf now threatens to disintegrate the political alliance that, less than a year ago, won the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), its most tangible accomplishment and by far the country’s most significant climate law.

The differences over permitting reform aren’t just a disagreement about tactics. Rather, they reflect fundamental changes within three of the most important factions within the climate coalition — the environmental movement, the clean energy industry, and the Washington-centric group I’ve termed the green growthers. Facing these changes and their implications is critical to preserving the political foundations of federal climate action.

Ever since passage of the IRA unlocked massive fiscal resources for decarbonization, the climate coalition has been split on how best to put that money to work. While nearly everyone recognizes the need to substantially increase the pace at which clean energy infrastructure gets deployed, division centers on the question of permitting reform. To even name the debate is to invoke a factional diagnosis: the view that environmental laws are hobbling decarbonization by preventing clean energy infrastructure from getting built quickly enough — or even at all. This perspective has rapidly gained momentum across a bipartisan community that includes self-styled centrists within the climate coalition.

Permitting reform is unraveling the climate coalition because it reawakens a fundamental, unresolved disagreement over how to decarbonize. Its timing adds to these tensions: bipartisan legislation to curtail national environmental law has arrived, not accidentally, just as the clean energy industry has become most capable of splitting from the broader climate coalition that helped create it.

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  • The environmental movement

    The oldest faction in today’s climate coalition, and the most diffuse, is the environmental movement. Its mainstream wing has roots in the principles of preservation, and its largest organizations have spent multiple generations fighting for clean air and water, and ecologically healthy lands and species.

    Its environmental justice wing, by contrast, emerged as racial justice activists combined civil-rights and environmental-protection principles to address historically unequal pollution burdens that have concentrated health risks and environmental damages in disempowered communities of color. Only in the last few years, after decades of discoordination, disinterest, and exclusion, have preservationist institutions become more attentive to the legacy of environmental racism. The movement has now coalesced, however incompletely, around a broader and more inclusive environmental vision.

    Though preservationist and environmental-justice approaches can still lead to different priorities, the new environmental movement is at its most unified when it opposes fossil fuel production. The movement’s history of civil disobedience and legal combat have taught it to keep fossil fuels in its crosshairs — not only because of the social and environmental harm fossil fuel projects cause, but also because fights against fossil fuels mobilize the public, clarify the stakes, and yield tangible improvements for local communities and environments.

    Though both wings of the environmental movement fought hard for the IRA, the law does almost nothing to directly constrain fossil fuel production. Instead, the IRA largely aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions not by preventing those emissions, but rather by boosting the production and use of low-carbon energy — along with generous subsidies for storing carbon dioxide, often in conjunction with oil production or fossil fuel combustion. Accordingly, the environmental movement has redoubled its efforts to pair the law’s clean energy subsidies with new fossil fuel restrictions.

    Clean energy industries

    The environmental movement’s discomfort with a subsidies-only approach to decarbonization is probably better known than the shifting politics of the clean energy industry. As the new environmental movement has coalesced, clean energy has matured into a fully-fledged industry, both in the U.S. and around the world. Until the past few years, the nascent clean energy industry wielded little political muscle, depending instead on the political support and lobbying assistance of environmental groups. Not that long ago, renewable energy was more expensive, less familiar to regulators, and supported by fewer subsidies than fossil energy systems. As a result, clean energy companies depended heavily on the environmental movement’s political support to survive and grow.

    Over the past half a decade, technological progress and policy victories achieved in coalition with the environmental movement have vaulted key technologies like wind, solar, and batteries into commercial maturity. Those gains are now locked in. The IRA provides at least 10 years of new federal clean energy tax credits, ending the boom-and-bust cycle of short-term extensions that held the clean energy industry together for most of the previous two decades. With falling costs and fiscal tailwinds, the clean energy industry no longer relies on the environmental movement’s lobbying muscle for commercial success.

    The clean energy industry’s maturation has led to more profound differences with the environmental movement that eclipse a simple re-alignment in relative power. As the clean energy industry has grown, it has come to share the fossil energy industry’s preference for more permissive regulatory regimes and fewer environmental protections. In the pre-commercial era, climate-conscious jurisdictions like California drove clean energy development through supportive environmental policy. In recent years, though, the clean energy industry has grown faster and profited more in places like Texas, and for the same reason the fossil fuel industry has: because Texas offers open markets and few restrictions on energy development. As the clean energy industry’s policy priorities have shifted, its growing lobbying apparatus has followed suit, leading groups like the American Clean Power Association to collaborate with fossil fuel companies in pursuit of environmental deregulation.

    Green growthers

    Activists and policymakers focused on rapid, massive clean energy development make up a third critical faction of the national climate movement. Many in this group work in and around the Biden administration and have come to the climate fight not from the environmental movement, but from other areas such as industrial policy, national defense, some strands of organized labor, and electoral politics. They have brought their prior priorities — job creation, domestic manufacturing, and stable energy prices — to their climate politics. In the wake of the IRA, they remain focused on lowering the remaining barriers to rapid clean energy development.

    These often center-left climate actors have only cohered into a distinct faction in the past five years, as enthusiasm for so-called “supply-side progressivism” has given them a common language with which to articulate a set of climate solutions founded on proactive government support for private reindustrialization. For some green growthers, deregulation is a necessary precondition to decarbonization, and since many also believe that clean energy will — with the IRA’s help — outcompete fossil fuels, they see fewer risks to reforming environmental law than the environmental movement does.


    In part, the conflict over permitting reform has grown bitter because the term gets used to refer to many different policy proposals. Depending on the speaker and the audience, it can mean sweeping changes to how environmental laws govern new infrastructure projects; tailored tweaks to environmental review; more resources to strengthen administrative capacity and expedite permitting reviews; or changes to the process for building transmission lines and connecting power plants to the grid. This tangle of meanings has undermined the climate coalition’s ability to negotiate its internal differences and prioritize consensus solutions to the challenge of rapid clean-energy development.

    More fundamentally, though, the environmental movement, the clean energy industry, and the green growthers are clashing over permitting reform because it has forced them to confront their ongoing disagreement about how to achieve decarbonization.

    To many in the environmental movement, and especially on the climate left, most permitting reform proposals double down on what they see as a worrying tenet of the IRA: its dependence on competition and market dynamics to slash fossil fuel production. The environmental movement is familiar from long experience with this kind of market thinking, which promises that present development and the damage it entails will eventually unlock future benefits. As the environmental movement as a whole has become more concerned with historical pollution burdens, that bargain looks worse, and less trustworthy, than ever.

    Many permitting reform proposals, including the newly-enacted language of the debt-ceiling deal, exacerbate these concerns by targeting the environmental movement’s oldest and most effective legal tools for defeating fossil fuel projects. At the same time, these proposals still omit any of the constraints on fossil fuels that the environmental movement believes necessary for decarbonization.

    The environmental movement has responded with deployment-focused proposals of its own that aim to speed clean energy development without weakening environmental law. However, even the most straightforward of these proposals — such as appointing a fifth commissioner to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — have repeatedly been deprioritized by clean-energy groups and green growthers. In the wake of the debt ceiling deal, which included none of the environmental movement’s reform priorities but substantially weakened environmental review, the movement is mobilized and angry.

    To the green growthers, by contrast, rapid decarbonization cannot happen without permitting reform. According to the IRA’s market-decarbonization logic, the best and most politically plausible way to drive fossil fuels out of American energy markets is to displace them with cheaper and more abundant clean energy. At the same time, events such as the gas-price shock of 2021 — and its damage to Biden’s popularity — has reinforced their existing belief that suppressing fossil fuel extraction without first creating massive new clean energy production will risk serious political backlash. This theory of change has led green growthers to be simultaneously sympathetic to the clean energy industry’s deregulatory wishlist, and skeptical of the environmental movement’s focus on constraining fossil fuel production.

    These factions’ divergent theories of decarbonization have offered a wedge to those within the climate coalition who believe rapid, effective clean energy development has become incompatible with rigorous environmental and social protections. Anti-coalitional voices, especially within portions of the clean energy industry, increasingly see permitting reform as an opportunity to split the climate coalition, excising the environmental movement from the climate coalition and creating a new, climate-inflected industrial alliance.

    Most green growthers understand that such a split would deprive the existing coalition of its popular wing at a critical moment, threatening the political viability of climate progress. Though the growthers believe that the IRA’s clean-energy manufacturing boom will build a powerful new political coalition in favor of decarbonization, that coalition does not yet exist.

    Environmental protection, by contrast, is extremely popular across America today, and the environmental movement has repeatedly proven its ability to mobilize public support. Though the clean energy industry no longer needs the environmental movement’s political muscle to turn a profit, the climate coalition as a whole may struggle to maintain political support for decarbonization without it, especially as climate change destabilizes the country’s energy systems and the right continues to oppose rapid decarbonization.

    To understand why, you don’t need to look farther than Texas, which is something of a proving ground for the three factions’ competing beliefs about how deregulation may shape decarbonization.

    In recent years, Texas provided strong evidence for the clean energy industry’s assertions that, whatever the environmental and social costs, less regulation can speed the deployment of renewable energy. It likewise bolstered green growthers’ claims that cheap, plentiful renewables can displace fossil energy.

    But suddenly, Texas is also proving the environmental movement’s counter-argument. The state’s legislature has just created a new set of generous rules and tax subsidies that support new gas-fired power plants while hampering clean energy development. Though state lawmakers are transparently motivated by gas-industry lobbying and culture-war fixations, they have justified the legislation by arguing that Texas’ increasingly unreliable grid needs more gas plants to keep the lights on.

    Such claims, however dishonest, will only grow more plausible to many voters as climate-exacerbated disasters and the energy transition itself strain infrastructural systems in the years to come. Without permitting structures or robust state environmental laws, Texan climate activists are ill-equipped to fight a possible new wave of gas plants, and Texas’ future decarbonization is now in peril.

    Whereas last year, Texas’ clean energy boom seemed likely to continue driving fossil fuels out of the market and emissions down, now Texas’ new IRA-style subsidies and weak environmental protections look more likely to leave the state with more energy production of all kinds. Though Texas will continue to add clean energy, its decarbonization remains in doubt.

    Permitting reform is threatening the national climate coalition because it cuts to the heart of a longstanding philosophical disagreement about what it will take to actually achieve decarbonization. It has arrived as the climate coalition’s major factions are transforming in ways that themselves sharpen the conflict. Good-faith advocates of decarbonization in all camps should be concerned that, in the wake of the debt-ceiling deal, a new round of fractious permitting-reform fights will split the climate coalition into separate camps with irreconcilable theories of climate action.

    The result, though ideologically purifying, would be politically disastrous.

    Blue

    Josh Lappen

    Josh Lappen is a PhD candidate at Oxford, where he studies the political formation of energy systems and the history of electrification. Read More

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