With its open plains and thousands of miles of wheat fields, Kansas is one of the windiest states in the U.S. That makes it a great place for turbines that capture the wind and convert it into electricity. But too few people live there to use all that power.
So in 2010, developers started planning a large power-line project connecting Kansas with Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. They wanted to move the clean energy generated in Kansas, from both wind turbines and solar panels, to states with much bigger populations. That would let more communities replace planet-warming fossil fuels that have contributed to the kinds of wildfires and unhealthy air that have blanketed large swaths of North America this week.
Thirteen years later, however, full construction has not yet started on the project, known as the Grain Belt Express. Why? Because in addition to federal permission, the project needs approval from every local and state jurisdiction it passes through. And at different times since 2010, at least one agency has resisted it.
The Grain Belt Express is an example of a broader problem. America’s electrical grid is highly fragmented, as my colleagues Nadja Popovich and Brad Plumer explain in a story that’s just published. That decentralization makes it hard to coordinate the large, interstate projects needed to connect clean energy to the grid.
One way to get at that problem is to do what experts call permitting reform. The issue has recently gained national traction, and President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, discussed it during debt-limit negotiations last month. Local and state governments are considering changes, too.
The goal is to streamline the approval process for energy projects so they can avoid the fate of the Grain Belt Express. As long as such projects languish, Americans will keep using existing coal, oil and gas infrastructure for their energy needs.
Today’s newsletter will look at why the changes are needed to build the kinds of projects that could help address climate change and create more high-paying jobs.
A building challenge
Romany Webb, a climate law expert at Columbia University, put the problem in simple terms: “To mitigate climate change effectively, we’re going to need to build a lot of new stuff. And in order to do that quickly, we need to think about legal reforms.”
Much of the money for clean energy is already there. Last year, Congress approved hundreds of billions of dollars for solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear plants and other projects to tackle climate change. The next hurdle for those projects will not be money; it will be obtaining permits from all levels of government.
The climate funding could help America make a serious dent in its contribution to climate change, Princeton University researchers found. But about half the projected impact will be lost if the country does not speed up the building of large power lines, like the Grain Belt Express.
The problem is not just about power lines. The permitting process and other legal challenges are blocking hundreds of renewable-energy projects, including solar power plants and wind farms, according to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Communities have various reasons for blocking these projects. Landowners might worry about the government seizing their land. Power lines, wind turbines and solar panels can be eyesores in places that rely on beautiful vistas for tourism. Such projects can damage the environment by displacing wildlife or cutting down trees.
Some critics argue that speeding up permits could also make it easier to build coal, oil and gas infrastructure. Indeed, this is one reason that reform has bipartisan support: Democrats largely want the advances for clean energy, and Republicans largely want the boost to oil and gas production.
The criticisms have made it difficult for lawmakers to agree on what an overhaul should look like. So despite bipartisan support, Biden and McCarthy agreed to only minor changes, to speed up environmental reviews, in last week’s debt deal. They promised to come back to permitting reform in future discussions. Meanwhile, some states, like California, want to limit legal challenges that hold up projects.
The case for a permitting overhaul is that the current system has gone too far. Existing policies have helped protect the environment, landowners and tourism. But they have also become a burden that slows projects far longer than is necessary to ensure safeguards. Reform, then, would be about finding a better balance.
And though changes could allow more fossil fuel projects, they would probably enable far more clean energy projects, experts say. With public attention to climate change, technological breakthroughs and hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending, clean energy is expected to become cheaper and more competitive than fossil fuels. So developers will be much more likely to build a clean energy project than a fossil fuel one — if they can get the permits.
Some fossil-fuel projects already go through a streamlined federal process. In that sense, reform could give clean energy projects the same chance.
America’s electrical grid operates more like “balkanized fiefdoms” than a truly connected, national system, one expert told Nadja and Brad. Read their story, with maps breaking down what needs to change.
Progressives should rally around permitting reform to address climate change, David Wallace-Wells argued in Times Opinion.
THE LATEST NEWS
Some of the most potentially damning evidence in the 49-page indictment filed against Donald Trump came from notes by one of his own lawyers.
The 2024 Republican candidates have to decide how to run against Trump, which could determine the future of the party.
Democratic Party leaders support race-conscious affirmative action. Most voters, including many Democrats, oppose it.
Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul and Italy’s most polarizing and prosecuted prime minister, died at 86.
Ukraine said it had taken back three small settlements from Russian occupiers as part of its counteroffensive.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s former leader who pressed for independence from Britain, was arrested as part of an investigation into her party’s finances.
In India’s worst railway disaster in decades, almost all of the 288 people who died were in crowded cars where passengers stand for long stretches.
Other Big Stories
Part of Interstate 95 collapsed in Philadelphia after a tanker truck caught fire under an overpass. Repairs could take months.
A 39-year-old firefighter in New Jersey drowned after he rushed into the sea to save his daughter, who survived.
Noise could take years off your life. These videos and charts explain the problem. (If noise affects your life, The Times wants to hear from you.)
Puerto Rico’s enduring colonialist legacy is often at the root of gender-based violence there, Anjanette Delgado writes.
New York has moved to decriminalize marijuana, but undocumented immigrants who have had their pot convictions erased still face deportation, Jill Applegate writes.
Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post lost 40 pounds while taking the drug Ozempic. Now she’s left with questions.
Here are columns by Maureen Dowd on Trump and Ezra Klein on Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Big dig: A fossil frenzy in Australia draws in dinosaur-minded tourists.
“Ducking”: Apple knows that’s not what you meant. So it’s fixing autocorrect.
Metropolitan Diary: “See? That’s what I miss about New York City!”
The talk: A sex educator thinks couples should have a monthly “sexual state of the union.”
Lives Lived: The astronomer Owen Gingerich wrote and lectured widely, often on the theme that religion and science were not incompatible. He died at 93.
SPORTS NEWS FROM THE ATHLETIC
French Open: Novak Djokovic earned his 23rd Grand Slam title yesterday after winning the men’s singles championship.
Soccer’s big disrupters: Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has its eye on more big names to join its league.
Golf: Nick Taylor won the RBC Canadian Open. It could be a memorable end to the tournament’s run on the PGA Tour.
ARTS AND IDEAS
A return to the stage: After a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015, it seemed as though Joni Mitchell might never perform live again. But on Saturday, she played her first full concert in two decades, delivering a nearly three-hour performance that proved her voice, and her wit, had not faded. “To hear Mitchell hit certain notes again in that inimitable voice was like glimpsing, in the wild, a magnificent bird long feared to have gone extinct,” the Times critic Lindsay Zoladz wrote.
More on culture
The Tony Awards went off with out a hitch despite a screenwriters’ strike. “Kimberly Akimbo” won the award for best musical, and “Leopoldstadt” won best play.
Here are all the winners.
THE MORNING RECOMMENDS …
Cook a simple strawberry tart.
Watch “Scarlet,” a historical drama to make you laugh and cry.
Smell the scent of Gay Pride with these candles.
Learn the art of layering rugs to make a room cozier.
Here are today’s Spelling Bee and the Bee Buddy, which helps you find remaining words.
And here are today’s Mini Crossword, Wordle and Sudoku.
Note: We heard from many readers who were disappointed that we eliminated the pangram solution from this section, and we’re restoring it starting today. Yesterday’s pangrams were attainability, banality, and inability.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow.
P.S. Today, we start a new section of the newsletter: “The Morning Recommends …” It’s where we will tell you about stories from Food, Well, Wirecutter and other Times sections that offer advice for daily living. (Previously, this coverage was scattered throughout the newsletter.)
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German Lopez is a writer for The Morning, The Times’s flagship daily newsletter, where he covers major world events and how they affect people. @germanrlopez
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