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Amid a push to greatly expand the nation’s clean energy infrastructure, key grid upgrades require approvals that can take years to complete. Can regulators strike the right balance between speed and environmental protection?
In 2008, Idaho Power began trying to get the permits for an ambitious project that the Boise-based public utility said would move it toward its goal of having all of the electricity it sends customers come from clean energy sources by 2045.
Under the proposal the utility, partnering with the Bonneville Power Administration, would build a 290-mile transmission line that would carry the clean power produced by hydroelectric dams in Idaho and Oregon back and forth.
For Idaho’s utility, it would mean tapping clean energy from the Northwest in the summer when people are running air conditioners, instead of meeting the high demand with electricity produced by natural gas and coal plants.
However, after about 14 years, the Boardman-to-Hemingway Project is still awaiting the last couple of permits it needs to finally be able to proceed.
“Naively or optimistically, we thought it would take four to five years,” Mitch Colburn, Idaho Power’s vice president of planning, engineering and construction said in an interview, of the time it would take to get the necessary federal and state approvals for the project.
But to clean power advocates, the project’s more than decade-long journey through a dizzying federal, state and local permitting process is an example of a critical problem the Biden administration is facing as it seeks to meet its clean energy goals.
The administration is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030, and to net zero by 2050, explains a report that the Brookings Institution’s Center on Regulation and Markets released last week.
To reach those goals, the Biden administration included in its massive climate, healthcare and tax package—the Inflation Reduction Act—subsidies to get more people to switch to electric-powered cars and heating, instead of those that run on fossil fuels.
That’s going to require more electricity though. The Brookings report pointed to a study by the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy that found that to meet those goals, the nation will be using nearly twice as much electricity in 2050 than in 2018.
To be able to do that, Brookings researchers said, the nation will have to not only “quickly” build more clean power plants to generate the extra electricity, but also increase the amount of transmission lines the country has by 60% by 2030.
Part of the problem is that the current transmission lines are aging and already at full capacity, said Elan Sykes, an energy policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute.
But another issue, he said, is that clean power plants, like wind and solar facilities, are often located in remote areas that aren’t nearby places that need a lot of energy, like cities and industrial sites. Transmission lines then are needed to carry the electricity.
Colburn of Idaho Power agreed. “The plan for a clean energy future calls for more resources and more resources requires more infrastructure,” he said.
It is taking years, however, to get the permits to build the lines.
For Idaho Power, almost a decade went by before the Bureau of Land Management—the lead agency reviewing the environmental impacts of the project on behalf of federal agencies—finished its environmental review of the project in 2017.
And the wait isn’t over. The project has the permits it needs from the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the Navy. But it still has to get a federal wetlands permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. The project last week got the approval it needed from Oregon. But it still needs to get a permit from Owyhee County, Idaho.
Calls for Streamlining
A proposal by Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, to change how permitting is done for energy products could have helped to speed up the process.
It would have put greater pressure on agencies to finish the environmental assessment of projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, in two years—seven years faster than it took to complete the environmental assessment for Idaho Power’s project.
And under the process proposed by Manchin, one federal agency would take the lead in coordinating the review for all federal agencies.
The median time to do the environmental impact statements, according to a 2020 report by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was three and a half years. It can be longer depending on which agency is taking the lead, the study also found.
Those led by the Agriculture Department took a little over three years, but those led by the Transportation Department took more than six.
The NEPA review alone, though, doesn’t result in permits being issued. Separate from it, projects also need federal permits from other agencies.
Wind projects, and offshore wind in particular, often require Clean Air Act permits, the Brookings report noted. It also pointed out that wind, solar, and transmission projects are all likely to need Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act permits.
“Developing the transmission to bring energy from the sparsely populated West to urban centers frequently requires passing through some federal land,” which also require permits from agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the report also said.
Additionally, many states require an environmental review of projects that receive federal approvals. For instance, the Brookings report said that, according to the Council on Environmental Quality, 20 states require a study of the environmental effects when the federal government is required to evaluate a project under NEPA.
Congress has taken steps to try to streamline these processes, even before Manchin’s proposal. Under the recently approved bipartisan infrastructure law, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was given the power to overrule state decisions and grant permits for the construction of transmission projects it designates as serving the national interest.
In return for winning Manchin’s vote to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed to add the West Virginia senator’s permitting proposals to a crucial stopgap spending bill Congress approved at the end of September.
But Manchin’s plan drew sharp opposition from progressives and environmental groups. In addition to the energy project permitting changes, it would have, among other things, required the federal government to approve the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a controversial project that would carry natural gas in West Virginia and Virginia.
Notably, the proposed two-year limit on NEPA reviews was not necessarily a guarantee that projects would get a federal greenlight in that amount of time.
Manchin’s proposal did not, for example, say a project would automatically be approved if a review took too long, said Rayan Sud, a research assistant with the Center on Regulation and Markets, who co-authored the Brookings report with the center’s director, Sanjay Patnaik.
In setting the timeline, Sud said in an interview, the idea was to put pressure on agencies to finish reviews faster.
The reviews do not directly lead to projects getting permits they need from an array of agencies. But NEPA reviews do provide the information agencies use in deciding whether to grant the permits. So quickening the time it takes to do the reviews will likely shorten how long projects have to wait to get the federal permits they need, agreed Sud and Sykes.
“Many other reviews are folded into the NEPA process, so if agencies can complete the entire review process quicker, the other permits would have the information they need quicker and may be able to issue permits quicker,” Sud said.
That would help in giving those proposing projects some more certainty, said Sykes.
“One problem with NEPA is it creates a lot of uncertainty and it takes a lot of time,” he said. “We want energy to be cleaner. Having delays in the process leaves the status quo, not only with fossil fuel energy and carbon dioxide but air pollution.”
Added certainty on timelines is especially important, Colburn said, for smaller utilities that might be nervous about the risk of projects getting bogged down for years in the permitting phase.
Environmental Advocates Skeptical
But from the perspective of some environmental advocates, speeding up the process could result in projects not being reviewed as thoroughly.
Among them is Erik Molvar, executive director of the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, which fought a separate project by Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power. That infrastructure project would have built a 1,000-mile transmission line between Wyoming and Idaho that the utilities said would replace aging lines and create more ability to carry clean energy.
Molvar’s group, however, said the project—which received federal approval in 2018 after nearly a decade of review—could damage sensitive sage grouse habitat. The project was ultimately approved by the Bureau of Land Management to the disappointment of Molvar’s group. Shortening the timeline to do reviews would make things worse, he said.
“The Gateway West transmission line took ten years and two different Environmental Impact Statements to approve, and the Bureau of Land Management still didn't get it right,” Molvar said in an email. “Fast-tracking large and complex projects like Gateway West is a recipe for environmental disaster, which is exactly why we have federal laws that require agencies to look before they leap, consider a range of different alternatives, and listen to public input.”
“This ‘permitting reform’ movement is a solution in search of a problem, to create shortcuts that allow big industries to steamroll the public interest on the way to bigger profits and unacceptable environmental consequences,” he added.
In addition to trying to shorten environmental reviews, Sud, with the Center on Regulation and Markets, said Manchin’s proposal also would have expanded changes made in the new infrastructure law that allow FERC to override the will of states.
The law allowed FERC to give the go-ahead for transmission line construction in what are known as National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors, if states hadn’t made a permitting decision within a year, or if they required changes that would reduce the amount of power the lines could carry. The corridors are in areas where there’s a lack of transmission line capacity.
Sud said that Manchin’s proposal would have expanded FERC’s power here, enabling the agency to override states on projects outside the special corridors.
Sykes defended that idea, saying that it’s important for the federal government to take the lead on matters of national importance like addressing climate change.
For now, though, Manchin’s proposals face an uncertain future on Capitol Hill. He could try again to attach the package to two other measures the Congress must pass before the end of the year—the National Defense Authorization Act and the federal budget for the next fiscal year.
House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, who led the opposition of nearly 20 progressive House Democrats to Manchin’s proposal, told E&E News he’s open to continuing talks around permitting reform that could make it easier to expand clean energy.
“Now that the debate over this dirty deal is over,” Grijalva said in a statement, “I stand ready to work constructively with my colleagues on other permitting legislative efforts that can accelerate the clean energy transition, while also protecting the already overburdened.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.
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