Ordering Common Sense with “One Federal Decision” 

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Last week, the Trump Administration released an executive order that deserves attention and discussion. It follows a January 24 order that gave agencies authority to fast-track high priority infrastructure projects. It also revoked a January 2015 Obama Administration executive order that included standards for review of sea-level rise when assessing infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, this provision dominated press coverage of the order, obscuring some needed reforms that should help many energy projects, whether traditional or renewable, navigate environmental permitting and get online much faster with reduced costs.

The philosophy behind the August 15th order “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects” is fairly simple:

“Inefficiencies in current infrastructure project decisions, including management of environmental reviews and permit decisions or authorizations, have delayed infrastructure investments, increased project costs, and blocked the American people from enjoying improved infrastructure that would benefit our economy, society, and environment. More efficient and effective Federal infrastructure decisions can transform our economy, so the Federal Government, as a whole, must change the way it processes environmental reviews and authorization decisions.”

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), with help from the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) will lead development of a “One Federal Decision” approach to streamlining the environmental permitting process for infrastructure projects. Section 3(a) of the order defines infrastructure project as:

“… a project to develop the public and private physical assets that are designed to provide or support services to the general public in the following sectors:  surface transportation, including roadways, bridges, railroads, and transit; aviation; ports, including navigational channels; water resources projects; energy production and generation, including from fossil, renewable, nuclear, and hydro sources; electricity transmission; broadband internet; pipelines; …”

For each project’s permitting phase, participating agencies will choose a lead agency, and follow a timeline with safeguards and notice to higher-ups when key deadlines slip. The lead agency is responsible for “navigating the project through the Federal environmental review and authorization process, including the identification of a primary Federal point of contact at each Federal agency.” The order sets an expectation, not a firm requirement, that the environmental permitting process will take no more than two years.

This order wasn’t a huge surprise, and the changes it envisions won’t be instantaneous. It sounds pretty reasonable, right? “One Federal Decision” can help get renewable generation to market faster, or speed up construction of transmission lines needed to carry wind and solar. Why would executive action be needed to have professionals at well-respected agencies get together and make efficient decisions on a timeline, coordinated with the budget office?

Unfortunately, too many examples abound of environmental permitting processes stretching out over years, with no clear lead, and a lack of transparency into how or why permits advance or stop dead in the tracks. Over the last several decades, numerous U.S. transmission, hydropower, and pipeline projects have been impacted by lengthy and costly delays. Some projects succumbed to the bureaucratic overload. 

Extreme voices in the environmental community too often have used the arcane and archaic systems in place to delay projects, even when completion of these would improve access to clean energy. Career staff in agencies have also, over the years, slow-walked reviews and sign-offs. Other reviews have been entangled in jurisdictional confusion among agencies who had little or no incentive to work together.

Many voices have noted both the frustration and economic costs. Commending the new order, last week the Edison Electric Institute noted the “wide array of land-use authorizations and associated environmental reviews” … [that make] … the average timeframe for permitting and siting an interstate transmission line … seven to 10 years.”

The Trump Administration may have been informed by its predecessor. In 2015, the Quadrennial Energy Review (QER), written by the Obama Administration’s Department of Energy after extensive public input, noted in its 9th chapter general findings:

 ®he involvement of multiple jurisdictions adds time to siting, permitting, and review of infrastructure projects … These entities often have overlapping and sometimes conflicting statutory responsibilities for siting and permitting projects. The interplay among the diverse sets of participants and statutorily defined responsibilities is challenging, and for particularly large and complex infrastructure projects, multiple permits and approvals can lead to inefficiencies and delay.”

 The QER also reported that:

 “®he Federal Government is taking steps to modernize its siting, permitting, and review processes. The complexity and pace of the Federal permitting and review processes for proposed infrastructure projects has been identified as a key challenge to building U.S. infrastructure for transporting, transmitting, and delivering energy. The Obama Administration has taken steps within and across Federal agencies to modernize the Federal permitting and review process for major infrastructure projects to reduce uncertainty for project applicants, to reduce the aggregate time it takes to conduct reviews and make permitting decisions by half, and to produce measurably better environmental and community outcomes.”

 In 2016, a bipartisan group of Governors, speaking as the Governors’ Wind and Energy Coalition, asked President Obama for assistance because “it is very difficult to permit wind and solar projects on public lands” and cited concerns over delays stemming from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) actions that “can impact projects in developing and operating facilities on both on public and private lands.” 

 Despite the likely benefits “One Federal Decision” can bring to renewable energy and storage projects, and the striking similarities between the new approach and Obama-era findings, reactions from environmental groups drew from the usual rhetorical grab-bag. Some said it would result in an environmental justice crisis, while others predicted people would now lose out to major corporations.

However, as PACE has noted many times, people lose out when delays and obfuscation keep needed energy projects from coming online or unnecessarily raise the ultimate costs. People lose out when companies that provide good jobs go overseas where energy supplies cost less and infrastructure development is more predictable.

Over the next 6 months, as OMB and CEQ develop “One Federal Decision,” organizations and policymakers which put energy consumers first have an opportunity to support and shape the order’s vision. Creating a new climate for responsible federal decision-making can help ensure a brighter energy and economic future for generations to come.