For more than a decade, America has been moving away from foreign sources of energy to homegrown sources of energy, and from high-carbon fuels to low-carbon fuels.

That’s not because of a big government program — it’s pure economics. The cost of domestically produced natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar plummeted during the 2010s, and so did America’s carbon emissions.

Today, we could be producing much more homegrown energy and cutting carbon emissions at an even faster pace. But ironically, federal environmental regulations and left-wing green groups are slowing things down.

That’s because to create new sources of energy, you have to build things. Like transmission lines to move electricity from wind farms in the countryside to homes and businesses in the city. Or pipelines to move natural gas from where it’s produced to homes, businesses, factories, power plants and export terminals. Or mines that dig up the metals needed to make grid-scale batteries and electric cars.   

And yet, thanks to decades of lobbying and lawsuits, the federal permitting system for large construction projects in the U.S. has become almost unworkable.

It’s so bad that even far-left environmental activist Bill McKibben — godfather of the “keep it in the ground” movement — can admit that things have gone too far.

“I’m an environmentalist, which means I’ve got some practice in saying no,” McKibben recently wrote in Mother Jones magazine. “But we’re at a hinge moment now, when solving our biggest problems … means we need to say yes to some things.” McKibben’s article was even headlined: “Yes In Our Backyards.”

Actions, however, speak louder than words — which is why new conservative leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives is a big deal if you want to see America start to build things again.

In late March, the House passed a major permitting reform bill: The Lower Energy Costs Act. The bill, which is now before the Senate, streamlines and simplifies 1970s-era permitting procedures so that project developers can get a clear yes or no answer on whether construction can proceed much faster than is possible today.

In the decades since the National Environmental Policy Act and other landmark environmental statutes were passed, environmental activists and overzealous regulators have learned how to slow down the permitting review process as much as possible, adding years of delay, expense and uncertainty.

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According to Utah Congressman John Curtis — chairman of the House Conservative Climate Caucus — the bill will support the development of clean energy technologies, improve energy efficiency, and promote energy independence by improving the permitting process for all sources, from wind and solar to oil and natural gas. 

“Republicans care deeply about this Earth, emission reductions, affordable energy, and energy independence, all of which are achieved by this bill,” Curtis said after the bill cleared the House in a bipartisan vote

So what happens next? One possibility is that leaders in the Senate decide to do nothing and keep the nation’s broken permitting system in place for the benefit of a small number of activist groups. That would expose these groups and their allies in Congress as hypocrites, since they claim to support the move away from foreign sources of energy to homegrown sources of energy, and from high-carbon fuels to low-carbon fuels.

Hopefully, however, common sense will prevail. The leading champion for permitting reform in the Senate is Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Last year, Manchin spent months developing his own proposal for streamlining the permitting process, which wouldn’t remove any environmental safeguards, but would speed up the time it takes to get a final answer from regulators or the courts.

“The United States of America is more litigious than any nation on Earth,” Manchin said late last year when his proposal was blocked in the Senate. “It takes longer to do anything here.” 

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Hopefully, leaders in Congress — especially members of our own delegation from Utah — now have a chance to restart the debate over permitting reform.

When members from across the political spectrum can see there’s a problem, commonsense solutions can be found — and must be found. 

If we hope to lower energy prices and lower emissions at the same time, there’s no way around it; we have to start building in America again.   

Steve Handy is a former state legislator and the Utah director for The Western Way, an organization focused on market-competitive solutions to environmental and conservation challenges.

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