One of the heavily watched industries in our nation’s capital is the energy industry and, crucially, one of the most talked about laws subject to change is the National Environmental Policy Act, which governs a multitude of industries which interact with the environment.
What is the National Environmental Policy Act?
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was established in part to help ensure that environmental impacts were studied and considered before any project could take place. This extends to energy, infrastructure, and a multitude of industries which impact the environment through their projects or their operation. This law, in effect since the Carter administration, has been a mainstay for decades. Now, the Trump administration is working to streamline and make changes that would circumscribe federal powers and perhaps provide a clearer path to some upcoming energy projects.
What changes to NEPA can we expect?
One of the most significant changes to NEPA is that a new category of “non-major” products would escape review. This would narrow the standard by which projects are judged and could lead to many more being approved quickly. The current standard of review takes into account how a project impacts global climate change by looking at the “cumulative” effect of the project, thus a project could be measured against eventual or overall sea level rise or carbon dioxide emissions. However, the Trump administration’s change in category would substantially narrow that review to what are seen as “foreseeable” situations.
For example, a new coal power plant in West Virginia would not be judged by how much carbon dioxide it adds to the world’s air supply and its overall contribution to climate change. It would be judged on how it would affect air quality in its state and possibly surrounding areas over time in addition to any other local environmental impacts. Another project might be judged by how it impacts the local streams and tributaries instead of how it contributes to sea level rise and coral bleaching throughout the world.
Are there any other relevant changes to NEPA that impact the law?
Currently, given the judicial challenges to some projects, environmental impact statements can take more than five years to produce. Given how that can delay a project, its impacts, and any potential job prospects for those dependent on it, the administration is proposing establishing a two year limit on environmental impact statements. They would also establish a one year limit for the more narrowly tailored environmental assessments. The administration also wishes to clarify definitions of some terms so they are technically feasible and so that not all projects or those with minimal federal involvement are not swept into the “major federal action” category.
What do these potential changes to NEPA mean for the energy industry overall?
These changes, while still not law, represent a significant step forward for potential use of energy sources. By lessening the bureaucratic red tape and clarifying the federal government’s role in these projects, those who wish to utilize energy sources more effectively can look toward a greater ease in their environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Although some of these proposals look promising, it will be up to all leaders in the federal government to work together to pass and implement them in a timely manner.
The 2020 elections are upon us and this year, our country will make important decisions regarding our future. One of the biggest questions supporters of energy deregulation had was: would there be an amendment on the Florida ballot that allowed for voters to approve energy choice?
The drama has resolved itself in the hallowed halls of the Florida Supreme Court, recently ruling that an amendment regarding energy deregulation would not appear on Florida’s 2020 ballot due to its “misleading” wording. For this year’s proposed ballot amendment, it was a death knell that sets back the energy choice amendment process until 2021.
What were the arguments for and against the energy choice amendment in Florida?
Both sides held fast to their positions regarding a possible energy choice amendment for Florida. Had it not been struck from the ballot, the proposal, like other constitutional amendments, would have required 60% approval from Florida voters in order to pass.
On the pro side, Citizens for Energy Choice argued that energy choice was helpful to the state of Florida and would benefit energy consumers throughout the state. Using the examples of Texas and Georgia energy markets, those advocating for energy choice made the case that free market solutions helped energy companies move toward focusing on energy production and not energy purchasing or billing. This injection of competition into the market, according to advocates, would have not only made energy consumption more efficient but more cost effective also by saving Florida consumers $5 billion a year.
On the anti side, many Florida government officials, unions, and others lined up against the amendment. In Florida’s state government, Attorney General Ashley Moody, House of Representatives Speaker Jose Oliva, and Senate President Bill Galvano all lined up in opposition in addition to Floridians for Affordable Reliable Energy and the Florida AFL-CIO. Their reasoning included the amendment eliminating a reliable and affordable energy scheme that had benefitted Floridians for generations. Florida’s government leaders stated that although the amendment purported to provide energy choice, it might in fact do the opposite. The AFL-CIO was particularly concerned about the fact that there was a potential for thousands of union workers who are employed in the power industry to lose their jobs.
What was the Florida Supreme Court’s reasoning in striking down the energy choice amendment in 2020?
The Florida Supreme Court took a dim view of the energy choice amendment as it related to its impact on Florida and on energy consumers. The court, in its opinion, called the amendment’s ballot summary misleading to voters, which would cause them to believe they might have a right to sell electricity. While the court did concede that the amendment allowed consumers to purchase electricity from a provider a person chooses or an energy wholesaler of electricity, in addition to the right to generate their own electricity, they remained focused on the issue of selling electricity which they state the ballot summary claimed but the amendment did not back up.
Florida business groups, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida supported the decision. Adding their voice to the chorus, the Urban League and League of Cities took a similar tack citing a potentially damaging impact to local governments to the tune of more than $1 billion.
What’s next for electricity choice in Florida?
Proponents of energy choice have their project left off the ballot in 2020, but nothing is stopping them from regrouping for the 2022 election and fixing the issue cited by the Florida Supreme Court.