President's Memorandum on Transmission Corridors Good for Siting, Review and Permitting that Significantly Reduces Delays


Last week President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum that should greatly improve the way transmission lines are sited, reviewed and permitted and their corridors designated by the federal government. Previous efforts to addressing these issues have been seriously flawed, hampered by poor prioritization, overly focused on preempting rather than coordinating with states, and marked by broad geographic designations. Entire eastern states were designated corridors, while all of Arizona and most of southern California were “corridors,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The resulting failure was predictable. Successful lawsuits by states and environmental organizations followed, throwing the entire program into disarray. 

The approach proposed by the president is refreshingly different and reads like a list of recommendations NRDC has made to administration officials since they took office in 2009. The memorandum builds on last year’s Executive Order 13604, which focused on improving coordination between federal agencies that may need to be involved in transmission planning and permitting, as well as the work of the interagency Rapid Response Team for Transmission charged with identifying ways to close the timeline gap between renewable energy project development (typically 3-5 years) and transmission availability (7-10 years or even longer). I wrote about the RRTT last year.

Photo by Carl Zichella

In carrying out the requirements of this memorandum, the heads of the Departments of the Interior, Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, Energy, Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Department of the Army, and other agencies or offices as may be needed are directed for coordinate their work. 

Following are comments on each of the principles of the president’s memorandum:

1)      “…collaborate with Member Agencies of the Steering Committee on Federal Infrastructure Permitting and Review Process Improvement (Steering Committee), established by Executive Order 13604, which shall provide prompt and adequate information to ensure that additional corridor designations and revisions are consistent with their statutory responsibilities…”

NRDC comment: Inter-agency coordination and accountability are key principles for both making good siting, review and permitting decisions and significantly reducing delays. When agencies work together sequential reviews are avoided and an integrated look at the resource choices is made possible. This will lead to better and less controversial decisions.

2)      “…focus on facilitating renewable energy (emphasis mine) resources and improving grid resiliency … by ensuring that energy corridors address the need for upgraded and new electric transmission and distribution facilities to improve reliability, relieve congestion, and enhance the capability of the national grid to deliver electricity…”

NRDC comment: The clean energy future we envision will rely on our ability to prioritize transmission decisions for renewable generation and more coordinated grid operations between all electricity operators and consumers. Today, virtually every transmission line in the West has a direct connection to renewable energy development, which is exploding, while no new coal plants are on the drawing board and many are being retired.

3)      “…use integrated project planning and consult with other Federal agencies, State, local, and tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, and the public early in the process of designating the energy corridors, so as to avoid resource conflicts to the extent practicable and make strategic decisions to balance policy priorities…”

NRDC comment: The memorandum relies on coordination with key stakeholders, including states and local governments rather than preemption. It also explicitly creates a role for environmental stakeholders like NRDC which are actively contributing to transmission planning reforms at both the Western Electricity Coordinating Council and in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s landmark Order 1000 planning process. Local governments will be especially important as in many states they have siting jurisdiction in transmission planning.

4)      “…collaborate with State, local, and tribal governments to ensure, to the extent practicable, that energy corridors can connect effectively between Federal lands…”

NRDC comment: Previous corridor designation processes only addressed federal lands, which meant a “corridor” would stop at the boundary of a federal land holding leaving a gap until it resumed on the next piece of federal land (if it even did at all). These gaps, without state and county help could become road blocks for needed transmission. Working with states and local governments to refine corridor proposals on non-federal lands will help us find lower-impact and more societally acceptable transmission routes. 

5)      “…minimize the proliferation of dispersed and duplicative rights-of-way crossing Federal lands while acting consistent with subsection (a)(ii) of this section…”

NRDC comment: By working with the Western Governors Association, the Western Electricity Coordinating Council and federal agencies we have worked to ensure that promising renewable energy areas – where possible development zones with few environmental conflicts – are prioritized for transmission, avoiding the spaghetti-like alternative of having to create new rights of ways for competing projects. This principle validates our approach.

6)      “…design energy corridors to minimize impacts on environmental and cultural resources to the extent practicable, including impacts that may occur outside the boundaries of Federal lands, and minimize impacts on the Nation's aviation system and the mission of the Armed Forces…”

NRDC comment: NRDC was among a number of conservation organizations who called upon the administration to “rationalize” transmission by using renewable energy zoning and defining corridors that created the least conflicts with environmental and cultural resources. The solution to this is using geospatial information to inform transmission planning –something we have pioneered with sister organizations such as the Wilderness Society, Audubon, Western Resource Advocates, and Western Clean Energy Advocates among others. Because of our efforts new tools are available for renewable energy companies, agencies and their partners to use in evaluating the risk of resource conflicts.

7)      “…develop interagency mitigation plans, where appropriate, for environmental and cultural resources potentially impacted by projects sited in the energy corridors to provide project developers predictability on how to seek first to avoid, then attempt to minimize any negative effects from, and lastly to mitigate such impacts, where otherwise unavoidable…”

NRDC comment: Mitigation areas for the industrial-scale generation and transmission projects we need also must be large and the conservation prescribed for them permanent. Connections between mitigation areas are needed to protect biodiversity and wildlife, and prevent species and habitat decline or endangerment.

In addition to these incredibly valuable principles, the memorandum also establishes a formal “pre-application process” for transmission projects that enables all stakeholders to engage early in the planning of projects seeking federal approvals, so environmental, cultural and community issues can be taken into consideration early in the process, resulting in proposed projects that can be either made better or if they have fatal flaws dropped in favor of better ones.

NRDC is part of a Western Governor’s Association task force to improve siting and permitting for interstate projects, and is advising the Council on Environmental Quality on the development of the Inter-agency Pre-application Process. We will continue working with federal, state and local agencies, to improve the way we plan, approve and build renewable energy generation and transmission in a time frame that matters for addressing Climate Change.