Infrastructure Plan a Step Forward for Renewables

May 14, 2014 -- Today the Obama Administration announced a plan that implements the President's May 17, 2013 "Presidential Memorandum on Modernizing Infrastructure Permitting." While this plan affects all kinds of national infrastructure such as roads, bridges and airports, it is especially relevant for renewable energy transmission siting, which, because it often will cross land managed by several federal agencies and two or more state lines, is often subject to lengthy delays that, with better coordination and planning, could be avoided. 

 The administration’s goal is to: “Modernize the Federal permitting and review process for major infrastructure projects to reduce uncertainty for project applicants, reduce the aggregate time it takes to conduct reviews and make permitting decisions by half, and produce measurably better environmental and community outcomes.”

 Many of the actions detailed in the implementation plan echo those NRDC has recommended to the administration since it took office, and we are very supportive of the administration’s efforts to make them part of business as usual for renewable energy projects in particular.

 No Cutting Corners

Best of all, the implementation plan proposes to do this without cutting corners on environmental reviews required under federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Endangered Species Act. These laws are regularly blamed for almost every delay projects experience in permitting. But months and even years have been wasted by poor planning and a lack of coordination by federal agencies (and federal and state governments) that are too often underfunded and understaffed. This implementation plan has the potential to greatly speed up permitting for truly needed projects and derail the NEPA blame train used routinely by conservatives and extractive industries to attack these cornerstone environmental statutes. Finally, the implementation plan draws upon experience with how to do permitting better that was hard won in California and relied upon the close cooperation between state and federal officials and stakeholders including NRDC.

Major reforms  

  1.  The implementation plan sets up a process to select projects worthy of a major national coordination effort. This focuses scarce agency resources on truly important projects, such as renewable energy transmission, which can take seven years longer to build than it does to construct a wind or solar farm .
  2.  The implementation plan identifies ways to avoid delays for selected projects by not just vaguely talking about inter-agency coordination between federal agencies, but establishing  a discrete process (the Policy for Coordinated Project Review) for them to follow, and assigns lead responsibility to a single agency to drive project review in a timely way.
  3. The plan directs agencies to use this organized coordination to avoid sequential reviews and to synchronize schedules to keep permitting processes on track and moving expeditiously. This includes establishing a process to more effectively coordinate on the Federal "Lead Agency’s" identified statement of a project’s purpose and need (a key NRDC recommendation to improve NEPA documents).
  4. The plan emphasizes the need to provide a roadmap or “dashboard” of permit requirements to aid developers in making the most of the agency coordination and set the table for close Federal and State coordination. NRDC is a participant in an effort to develop a joint state-federal roadmap for renewable transmission planning in the West as part of a task force formed by the Western Governors Association and coordinating closely with federal efforts detailed in the implementation plan.
  5. Another key reform is to identify best practices and expand agreements for early engagement with tribal, state, and local governments. This is intended to build upon existing successful models and include data sharing and mitigation planning on a landscape level, something NRDC has strongly supported and pioneered as part of the California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
  6. Utilizing these relationships the plan details ways to improve cultural resource identification and avoidance and takes advantage of and develops new data and tools including a national inventory of historic properties.
  7. One of the most important reforms is facilitating and enhancing non-federal stakeholder participation in the planning, review and permitting processes. Again, this early and meaningful involvement has been a key component of NRDC’s work with the federal government and a cornerstone of our “Smart from the Start” approach.

These important advances are bolstered by internal improvements to train and reorient federal staff to make routine a more expeditious approach for major projects, something that is not as easy as it sounds given the multiple missions and modus operandi of federal, state and tribal agencies.  But it is critical to helping us move more renewable power into the system even as coal plant retirements gather steam (pun intended).  Closing the gap between transmission infrastructure development and renewable project construction timelines is an essential goal in NRDC climate mitigation plans.  The implementation plan takes a major stride forward in making that happen.