Infrastructure investment is the best idea that never happens: Could 2021 be different?

Congress may have a new opportunity to help us transition to a resilient, low-carbon economy

The parties have long been divided on how to address our infrastructure needs while decarbonizing the economy, but fortunately, cracks are emerging in this long running stalemate, Durbin and Grumet write.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The parties have long been divided on how to address our infrastructure needs while decarbonizing the economy, but fortunately, cracks are emerging in this long running stalemate, Durbin and Grumet write. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 2, 2020 at 1:58pm

When this year’s presidential election is over, no matter what issues the campaign turns on, we believe there are two profound challenges that face our nation now and are likely to define the success and legacy of the president who sits in the Oval Office for the next four years.

The first — and most obvious — is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its incredible disruption to our economy, which may require forceful new approaches to getting the country back to work. The second is climate change. Simply put, we must act quickly to develop and implement a strategy to mitigate its effects. In both cases, the need for government action is acute.

Fortunately, there is a policy approach that could unite our near-term economic crisis and long-term climate agenda. Our nation must launch a massive investment program in energy, transportation, water and communications technologies that propel efforts to decarbonize the economy. This herculean challenge will require trillions of dollars of public and private investment along with an ambitious construction plan supporting millions of jobs. Unfortunately, it is not likely to happen if we continue our current polarized debate over building and permitting new infrastructure.

The idea that an administration should focus on infrastructure in the first 100 days is also not groundbreaking. America’s roads and bridges and other infrastructure are crumbling, and the gridlock in our major economic hubs is harming our productivity, global competitiveness and quality of life. The touchless pandemic economy has also revealed profound inadequacies in broadband access and public health infrastructure. Many argue that both the Obama and Trump presidencies failed to seize on infrastructure as an ideal opportunity to unite the country and bridge the partisan divide, rather than the more fractious goals they did pursue. Could this time be different? Might President Trump or a President Biden finally embrace the opportunity to modernize our nation and truly build back stronger? 

However compelling, the logic of fast-tracking modern, resilient and low-carbon infrastructure has been overshadowed recently by brutal fights over a few oil and natural gas pipelines that have framed the national debate as a caricature of environmental radicals battling callous fossil fuel interests. The reality is, these disputes, while important to affected communities, reflect the broken politics of climate change and are not actually meaningful as a climate solution. They do, however, stoke emotions and feed a decades-old climate combat culture that many are not ready or able to relinquish.   

Fortunately, there are some cracks emerging in this long running stalemate. The shared economic and climate imperative is speed. Herein lies the possibility of a new coalition focused on accelerating investment in infrastructure needed for economic recovery and a real climate solution. More climate advocates are acknowledging that the huge investments required to build out, replace, modernize and decarbonize energy production, manufacturing facilities, transmission wires, battery storage facilities, pipelines, machines that suck carbon out of the air, sequestration sites and a myriad of other infrastructure will not occur in time, absent substantial reform to federal and state permitting processes. 

There are new building blocks for speeding up this process in updates to the National Environmental Policy Act recently finalized by the White House. While not aligned with the administration’s views on climate change, the Bipartisan Policy Center has nonetheless recognized that the “administration has put forward a set of helpful and necessary process reforms that maintain an avenue for stakeholder engagement.”  

At the same time, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue invoked the need “to address climate change through innovation and investment” as a reason for the chamber’s strong support for this same regulation. Both our organizations acknowledge the importance of environmental justice concerns and agree that modernizing the nation’s infrastructure must bring benefits and jobs to communities that have borne disproportionate burdens in the past.

Congress has an opportunity to create a new coalition to achieve the ambitious and necessary transition to a resilient, low-carbon economy. More building blocks are in the pending Senate infrastructure legislation in which Republicans have explicitly embraced a series of climate initiatives that reduce emissions, build infrastructure for low-carbon approaches like electric vehicles and invest in infrastructure resilience to address and adapt to growing climate impacts.

Some Democrats are supporting permit modernization efforts, including consolidating permitting decisions for major infrastructure into a single document and incentivizing federal agencies to complete their environmental review process within an average of two years. An additional step that both sides should embrace is the reauthorization of FAST-41, a bipartisan program in the last highway bill that created an effective interagency council to improve the federal project review and approval process.

These steps may be seen as incremental, but they are significant because they signify that Republican leaders in Congress have moved well beyond questioning the existence of climate change, while Democrats are demonstrating a willingness to take a fresh look at meaningful regulatory reform proposals. 

Success will require a president who is able to build bridges figuratively and literally, a motivated Congress, and a public that is desperate for progress and unwilling to be dominated by the edges of either party.

Historically, when those elements align, America finds a way to deliver. 

Marty Durbin is president of the Global Energy Institute at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.