The U.S. Chamber of Commerce & Clearing the Air on "Red Tape" - The Real Statistics for Solar and Wind Energy Permitting

In what is becoming nearly an annual event, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is once again launching their “Green Tape” report, where the Chamber argues that if not for bothersome environmental regulations that keep our water drinkable and air breathable (among other things), American businesses would be unleashed from unnecessary restrictions allowing our streets to be paved with gold.  One of the more tired claims made in an op-ed by the Chamber’s of Commerce’s CEO – Thomas J. Donohue – was the suggestion that the proponents of enhanced environmental regulation are also responsible for killing jobs in the renewable energy sector:

Some environmental activists and their allies — who should be the strongest "green" energy supporters of all — are using every resource at their disposal to block, delay, or cancel clean energy projects. They have organized local opposition, changed zoning laws, opposed permits, filed lawsuits, and bled projects dry of their financing. Call it "green tape" bureaucracy. Their efforts are undermining job creation and slowing the adoption of environmentally friendly energy technologies. They want the benefits of clean energy only if it doesn't inconvenience anyone in any way.

(ahem, for the time being, let’s set aside the headache-inducing cognitive dissonance of the Chamber now serving as a friend of the renewables community, given what the President of their “Institute for 21st Century Energy” had to say a scant two months ago: “Karen Harbert, president of the Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, in a wide-ranging interview with The Hill late last month said members of Congress should rethink attempts to set aside large amounts of money for the research and development of nascent energy technologies like wind and solar at the expense of conventional forms of energy like oil.”)

Such an argument hardly stands up to scrutiny in light of last year’s exceptional growth in the permitting and authorization of new utility-scale solar and wind projects – particularly in the context of projects sited on the nation’s federal lands.  In what was an unprecedented and historic achievement in 2010, nine solar energy projects and one wind project were permitted by the Department of Interior on public lands in the West, for a combined capacity of nearly 4,000 megawatts of power.  With the help of a robust public process as governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), many of the major national environmental organizations supported many of the solar projects that were permitted in 2010.  For NRDC’s part, we supported three utility-scale solar projects: Blythe, Lucerne Valley, and Imperial Valley (and NRDC did not oppose any). 

Project Name


NOI Date


FEIS Dates

ROD Date

Days from NOI to ROD

Days from DEIS to ROD




November 23, 2009

April 6, 2010

August 20, 2010

October 22, 2010






November 23, 2009

April 19, 2010

August 27, 2010

November 4, 2010




Crescent Dunes


November 24, 2009

September 3, 2010

November 26, 2010

December 20, 2010




Lucerne Valley


July 23, 2009

February 5, 2010

August 13, 2010

October 5, 2010




Silver State


June 30, 2009

April 16, 2010

September 10, 2010

October 12, 2010




Amargosa Farm Road


July 13, 2009

March 19, 2010

October 15, 2010

November 15, 2010






June 8, 2009

April 19, 2010

August 6, 2010

October 20, 2010




Imperial Valley


October 17, 2008

February 12, 2010

July 28, 2010

October 5, 2010






November 6, 2007

November 10, 2009

August 6, 2010

October 7, 2010




NOI: Notice of Intent to Prepare and Environmental Impact Statement.  DEIS:  Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  FEIS:  Final Environmental Impact Statement.  ROD:  Record of Decision.

In addition, the time it took these projects to go through the permitting process was not long by any standard measure.  Of the nine solar energy projects permitted in 2010, the average time for environmental review was 527 days, or 1.4 years (see table).  Permitting initiated during the Obama administration for those projects that received “fast-track” status took an average of 423 days, or 1.1 years to reach a final record of decision to allow for construction.  The two fast track projects that began the permitting process during the Bush administration took at least 219 days longer – but still within the normal NEPA timeframe.

Contrary to the Chamber’s notion that regulation is a vice impeding growth in the renewables industry, the NEPA and regulatory processes are probably the least of the difficulties facing the renewables industry (for an excellent depiction of the total process involved, First Solar has posted a time-line for a solar PV project, demonstrating how many moving parts there are in developing a renewable project, and the complexity of achieving each milestone in a timely (and on-time) fashion).

The accomplishments of renewable companies moving projects forward is even more impressive given the fact that these are relatively unproven technologies being deployed at new and larger scales than previously seen, in an incredibly challenging financing climate. In consideration of how little experience there is in siting and operating such projects, some might even say that the Interior Department’s expedited permitting process was too ambitious.  

But more importantly, what is greatly undermining additional investment can be blamed on the uncertainty that now exists within the current markets.  And the Chamber of Commerce should look itself in the mirror given that they have greatly contributed to this level of uncertainty.  If the Chamber truly cared about job growth for the renewables industry, they would be less concerned about purported red tape and would not have spent millions of dollars of their members' dues to kill climate legislation, not to mention mounting a vigorous effort against the adoption of a strong national renewable electricity standard.  These initiatives could result in true job growth and sustainability for a nascent, but key business sector.  The criticisms mounted by the Chamber, and the fossil fuel industries that back them, are of the highest insincerity given the dirty path they have already embraced.