Biden Administration readies regulations to speed permitting of renewable energy projects

The Biden energy/climate team is preparing regulatory improvements that will help speed up the multitudinous and lengthy environmental reviews necessary to start large-scale renewable energy projects, particularly offshore wind.

The new regulations aren’t ready for release yet but watch for them soon, said David Hayes, Special Assistant to the President for Climate Policy, who participated in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s latest EnergyInnovates session on permitting and transmission on May 13.

In addition to Hayes, guests included Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association; U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA); Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center; U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL); and Christopher Guith, senior vice president of policy at the U.S. Chamber Global Energy Institute.

Martin Durbin, president of the Chamber’s Global Energy Institute (GEI), hosted the hour-long webinar. Durbin focused on a core set of concerns: how to make the federal permitting process quicker and more efficient, so that projects were approved faster, and taxpayer dollars went to pay for the project, not for repeated rounds of agency reviews. It takes on average 4.5 years, for example, to get a federal permitting decision under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), according to the Chamber.

“We know what needs to be done for big projects to do the right things,” said Hayes. More specifically, he referenced a focused initiative from the Obama administration called “Smart From the Start.” This was introduced in 2010 by then-Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The initiative was to start environmental reviews early and coordinate state and federal permitting; it built upon work with large-scale solar projects. Hayes was Deputy Secretary at the time.

Today, Hayes said, a similar approach will “ensure that affected entities are at the table” earlier, not later. This will avoid surprises and confusion as the project moves forward. Hayes said President Joe Biden wants to “double down” on these kinds of efficiencies and streamlining. He specifically referenced the President’s January Memorandum directing the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget to “begin a process with the goal of producing a set of recommendations for improving and modernizing regulatory review.”
Officials are to provide “concrete suggestions on how the regulatory review process can promote public health and safety, economic growth, social welfare, racial justice, environmental stewardship, human dignity, equity, and the interests of future generations,” according to the memorandum.

This work among the White House offices is still underway, Hayes said, who added that he is “excited about the possibilities” offered by upcoming regulatory changes.

The Chamber’s Durban and Guith asked Reps. Graves and Davis for insights on Congressional concerns. Both noted that regulatory streamlining is a bipartisan priority. Rep. Graves noted that NEPA is triggered because of federal dollars. He suggested that state laws and regulations can be just as protective, and that NEPA does not have to be so automatic. He said that state officials in Louisiana could complete water resource projects at one-half to one-third of the costs incurred by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Rep. Davis cited a bill he introduced in June 2020 as legislation that could make a big difference in permitting timelines. The “One Federal Decision Act” limits federal reviews to two years, requires a single permitting timetable, and, importantly, would allow federal agencies to adopt so-called “categorical exclusions,” used now by federal highways. Since it was introduced, Davis’ bill has not advanced in Congress.

In a final discussion, Grumet of the Bipartisan Policy Center and Zichal of American Clean Power brought up the issue of urgency and timeliness central to climate-related decisions.

Zichal said permitting now takes four years for wind and solar and seven years for transmission projects. “We need bold goals,” Zichal said, “but we need policies to get us there.” She noted that the U.S. needs a 50 percent increase in transmission lines to deliver renewable energy at scale. But after seven years of review, a permit still may not be granted. “That holds back investment,” she said.

Grumet wants to see permitting at scale. If the U.S. is to triple or quadruple its electric energy generation by 2050, he noted, streamlining one project at a time won’t get the job done. “We need wholesale permitting,” and he called for new discussions on federalism and federal and state activities. “If every project needs three to four levels of review, we’re not going to make net-zero by 2050,” Grumet said.

Tom Ewing

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