You can probably see it in your hometown if you look: Citizens, nonprofits, or even large corporations are fighting renewable energy projects one-by-one in courtrooms, town meetings, and county planning commissions. These fights delay the clean energy transition. And despite allocating over $369 billion to climate change mitigation last year, the U.S. is on pace to miss our 2035 carbon emissions reduction goals by roughly half. The choke point is not money.

Laws that regulate the location of energy projects at least partially exist to protect disadvantaged communities. To some, reforming these laws would seem to pit justice and local environmental protection against overcoming climate change. But this is a false choice. Neither the reform of the permitting process nor environmental justice is possible without the other, and there is a way forward.

One challenge in reforming the permitting system is that project opponents give too much weight to the local effects of a project without consideration of the broader societal benefits. For example, there is legitimate concern that solar panels that are improperly sealed or degraded could leach contaminants into the surrounding area. But far more contaminants are unleashed through extraction and combustion of the fossil fuels that new solar generation would replace. Yet local land use concerns can be an impediment to permitting new solar projects.

The status quo does not benefit local communities on the whole; it benefits those with privilege and power who can take advantage of the current permitting system. They can trigger onerous reviews of Environment Impact Statements. They can request additional studies be included in studying project impacts, or use public comment periods to extend approval periods. They can file lawsuits against renewable energy developers. They can engage in lobbying and media outreach to influence public opinion, bringing more opponents to the table, extending delays.

Delay, after all, is the ballgame – opposition tactics are often backed not by concerned environmentalists, but by for-profit entities, sometimes fossil-fuel based utilities, that have concluded they will lose in the shift to new, clean power generation. Delays drive up costs, killing new projects. So we’re stuck with the old pipelines, incinerators, and waste pits foisted upon those most vulnerable to climate change. The result is minority and lower-income communities not only remain most vulnerable to the polluting effects of coal and gas fired power generation, but they often don’t trust the system or the government anymore. 

Still, the advantages that energy permitting processes currently provide to the privileged is no reason to toss them all aside.

It is possible to reform the rules that dictate where and how we develop renewable energy infrastructure – ranging from the National Environmental Policy Act, to the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulations, to local zoning laws. At the same time,we need mechanisms for equitable voice in decisions balanced with assurances that permitting decisions won’t be forever delayed. Many other developed countries have strong protections for labor, the poor, and the environment, and they are building clean energy capacity quickly and affordably. Some lessons we’ve learned from studying them and ourselves point ways forward.

One insight researchers have identified is that local opposition is not simply something to “overcome.” Locals prize having some input over specific aspects of a project, and local institutional involvement enhances “perceived fairness.” A general rule of thumb is most community members should have assurances of the local benefits of new infrastructure. That might mean keeping some power or profits local. When possible, local ownership is preferable. Reforms that strengthen the hand of local communities, while eliminating some of the mechanisms for endless universal project delays, present a good-faith balance.


Lawmakers can simplify the permitting process while maintaining environmental and community protections. Some of the policy changes could include broadening the definition of an “environmental impact,” creating a simple conversion for carbon reduction that can be weighed against local impacts, identifying which stakeholders have good-faith standing to stop a project, and setting a time limit on how long they can raise objections. Clarifying what is holding up a project and who is responsible for moving approvals forward will also reduce financial risk. The designation of a lead agency in permitting decisions within the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 was a good start.

Thankfully, Colorado U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper is working with Democratic and Republican colleagues to help answer these questions. Permitting reform should ride this momentum to a strong compromise in this Congress. Amid recent strides toward our climate targets, emerging social movements pushing for greener energy and cross-partisan climate conversations, we sense an unusual feeling in the climate change fight: hope.

Tanya Heikkila, of Denver, is a professor at the School of Public Affairs and co-Director of the Center for Policy and Democracy at the University of Colorado Denver.

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Tanya Heikkila, of Denver, is a professor at the School of Public Affairs and co-Director of the Center for Policy and Democracy at the University of Colorado Denver.