U.S. Chamber wants Congress to limit legal challenges to energy projects

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is stepping up its efforts to get Congress to limit legal challenges against clean-energy projects.

The Obama administration and Congress are determined to ratchet up the production of green energy in the United States, but that goal is being undermined by "radical environmental activism," the business community is trying to convince Washington.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday stepped up its campaign for congressional action to streamline the production of clean-energy infrastructure by launching the Web site ProjectNoProject.com.

Too many infrastructure projects, including electric transmission lines and solar farms, the chamber says, are held up by what it refers to as "green tape": lengthy permitting processes, litigation from concerned local activists and environmental groups, and other hurdles like rezoning. In many cases, the chamber says, these challenges delay projects for so long that financing dries up and the projects are abandoned.

"If we're truly going to be a green society and begin deploying these projects, we're going to have to find a way to streamline these projects into commerce," said William Kovacs, the U.S. Chamber's vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs.

Within the last 18 months, around 65 projects have been substantially delayed or killed, he said.

The new Web site gives examples of delayed projects in each state, and it gives visitors a "grassroots toolkit" to promote the site. It also provides a link to a standard letter that visitors can send to Congress members to urge them to shorten the environmental permitting process and more strictly regulate litigation against green-energy projects.

The chamber is asking Congress to set a 270-day time limit for the environmental assessments that must be completed for a stimulus-funded green-energy project to move forward. The organization would also like to see some limits on litigation against these projects, such as a time limit on legal actions or limits on the number of appeals possible. Alternatively, the chamber may ask for adjustments to the litigating process, such as taking cases directly to a court of appeals.

"We're not trying to change anyone's rights," Kovacs said. "All we're saying is there has to be an end point."

The Sierra Club and other prominent groups have adamantly opposed some projects, such as San Diego Gas & Electric's proposed Sunrise Powerlink project, a 1,000-megawatt transmission line that would transfer geothermal energy from California's Imperial Valley to the San Diego area.

"The center pin at a bowling alley isn't better positioned to do more damage at once than this reckless scheme which would string a power line over eagles, waterfalls, and history," the Sierra Club said in its April newsletter (PDF).

The energy bill proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is too tolerant of this kind of opposition, said Kovacs, since it has no limits on lawsuits against energy projects.

Janet Kavinoky, the chamber's director of transportation infrastructure, said the chamber's message is catching on around Capitol Hill and already has support from some members like Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) and David Vitter (R-La.).

"We have heard from members interested in finding out what projects have been stopped in their states," she said.

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