This should be the year for permitting reform
Earlier this year, I joined Vice President Harris, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi at a groundbreaking for Arizona’s Ten West Link transmission line. The project will deliver renewable energy across the West, as well as cheaper energy and good-paying, union jobs. It was a celebratory moment, but I couldn’t help reflecting on the decade-long permitting process the line had to endure. Remarkably, its eventual success is exceptional as few projects are approved within 10 years and many more are never completed.
Take, for example, the SunZia Southwest transmission line. The Obama administration selected it for expedited review, but it has languished in the permitting process for 14 years and counting. In fact, only two of the seven transmission projects selected for President Obama’s streamlining program have been completed.
After securing as many as 60 permits and coordinating with 16 federal agencies, developers also face an unpredictable landscape of rules and funding priorities that change with every election. They also must deal with contradictory actions within the same agencies.
The $3 billion Transwest Express clean energy transmission line started permitting in 2007. Thirteen years later, it had received all federal, state and county approvals. Yet, one of the federal agencies that granted approval instituted a new policy creating a conservation easement that would prevent the transmission line from being built. After three more years in court, the project may begin construction later this year — 16 years (and three presidential administrations) after the process began.
Both Republicans and Democrats champion large-scale energy projects, including transmission, wind, natural gas pipelines, solar, critical minerals, hydro, carbon capture, and hydrogen. Energy shortages, price instability, supply constraints, and increased construction costs number among the human and financial costs of these delays. With each passing month, the window for solutions continues to shrink.
Despite all these challenges, I am optimistic that we can make progress this year. There are glimmers of hope as the proverbial “strange bedfellows” find common cause. Renewable and traditional energy advocates recognize that their fates are intertwined, and their collective influence may yield results. As a result, coalitions like the Partnership to Address Global Emissions (PAGE), on whose advisory council I serve, are drawing support from climate advocates, the natural gas industry, labor unions, and others.
Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) permitting bill did not pass last year, but it opened a discussion that had been conspicuously absent from Congress. Now, a growing list of Republicans and Democrats are drafting proposals for the debate that is already in full swing. One of the main drivers is President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. It provides financial incentives to zero-emissions projects but does not address the underlying permitting problems that keep billions of dollars in investment on the sidelines.
To address infrastructure challenges, a multi-faceted approach is needed to modernize 65+ federal laws many of which were crafted over 40 years ago. We also need a bipartisan consensus to speed up energy projects without compromising environmental protections or stakeholder involvement. The Permitting Institute has developed a five-point blueprint that will make an immediate impact:
- Establish reasonable timeframes: Expand existing statutory requirements that agencies develop and apply recommended performance schedules that cover all reviews and authorizations. Use best practices and ensure meaningful public participation.
- Safeguard investments: Provide new remedies for developers and states where federal agencies act arbitrarily and capriciously, including court-identified timeframes for remanded reviews, cost recovery agreements, and damages for agency noncompliance.
- Improve transparency: Eliminate loopholes in publicly displayed permitting schedules and make tribal and public consultation easily accessible for greater accountability and informed decision-making.
- Address resource shortages: Reconstitute a national or regional project manager program to alleviate resource constraints and include permitting as a stand-alone item in congressional budget requests.
- Resolve coordination failures: Direct federal agencies to reconcile conflicting decisions to prevent delays and project cancellations due to coordination failures and process changes.
Doubtless, there are many details that need to be addressed, but we should be able to agree that a project development cycle of 7-to-10 years is simply too long. Working together, Congress and the president can advance permitting reforms to build 21st century infrastructure that safeguards communities, protects the environment and cultural resources, creates jobs, and brings prosperity to every corner of America. The time for action is now.
Alex Herrgott is the founder and president of the Permitting Institute, a nonprofit organization, serves on the advisory council of the Partnership to Address Global Emissions (PAGE) and was previously executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council and associate director for infrastructure at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
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