President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is making a once-in-a-generation investment in America’s infrastructure and our clean energy future that is creating good-paying union jobs, growing our economy, building energy security, combating climate change, advancing environmental justice, and helping lower costs for families. To continue to drive these efforts, the Biden-Harris Administration today announced a set of priorities it urges Congress to pass as part of bipartisan permitting reform legislation.
The Biden-Harris Administration has already unleashed over $470 billion in manufacturing and clean energy investments since President Biden took office, providing predictable funding for new projects that would not have been contemplated a few years ago, and secured $1 billion to help expedite federal agency permitting. As a result of the Inflation Reduction Act, near-term clean energy deployment is expected to increase by 25%.
Building clean energy projects in the U.S. at the speed and scale needed to adequately address the climate crisis requires strategic reforms that improve the way such projects are sited and permitted at the federal, state and local levels. The Administration is acting to move projects forward, using its existing authority to accelerate the federal permitting process. These actions include establishing a new interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate the timely, responsible, and equitable permitting of electric transmission infrastructure.
But more reforms are needed to build out modern American energy infrastructure and supply chains with the speed and safety that the moment demands. To take just one example, the law governing mineral claims – commodities that are critical components of modern energy technologies – is more than 150 years old. To ensure that we protect the environment and communities and keep our economy globally competitive, Congress should act on thoughtful permitting reform that puts science and people first.
Administration Objectives for Permitting Reform
The Biden-Harris Administration supports the important reforms contained in the Building American Energy Security Act of 2023 as the kind of bipartisan compromise needed to tackle this challenge. The Administration encourages the inclusion of the following priorities in any bipartisan permitting reform package:
- Accelerate Deployment of Critical Electric Transmission. In order to support the deployment of new clean energy generation, the country needs to expand transmission capacity to move electric power, both onshore and offshore. Congress should:
- Expedite the connection of interstate and offshore electric transmission lines by providing for electric transmission siting and cost allocation.
- Reform the transmission interconnection queue so that new generation projects are not stuck in line waiting for approval for over four years.
- Develop regional electricity transfer requirements that would set a minimum level of transfer capabilities between regions to avoid events like the 2021 Texas freeze, which was a humanitarian and economic crisis.
- Require the consideration of multiple benefits and burdens during interregional transmission planning, including economic, reliability, operational, environmental, and climate impacts.
- Direct the use of existing authorities to accelerate deployment of grid enhancing technologies and transmission line upgrades that could enable more than double the amount of new renewables that are able to be integrated into the existing grid infrastructure.
- Improve transmission financing by clarifying the Secretary of Energy is able to to make loans for transmission outside of designated transmission corridors, if it is deemed to be in the national interest.
- Accelerate Energy Project Permitting on Federal Lands. The Energy Act of 2020 directed the Department of the Interior to permit 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on departmentally managed lands by 2025; the Biden-Harris Administration is already on track to surpass this goal. Congress should update these provisions with goals for 2030 and 2035, to facilitate ongoing identification of zones for the development of renewable energy and for the siting of necessary transmission to attach that generation to the grid. Additionally, Congress should authorize the development of programmatic environmental reviews and direct agencies to develop categorical exclusions under them to facilitate speedier project development within identified zones.
- Modernize America’s 150-Year-Old Mining Laws and Responsibly Develop Domestic Critical Minerals. To meet the nation’s climate, infrastructure, and global competitiveness goals, the U.S. must expand and accelerate responsible domestic production of critical minerals in a manner that upholds strong environmental, labor, safety, Tribal consultation, and community engagement standards. The nation’s mining laws, however, are outdated, with core legal structures largely unchanged since the late 19th century. These outdated laws contribute to slower permitting timelines, inhibit sound siting and planning, create conflicts, and are barriers to the responsible expansion of domestic critical mineral production. By responsibly permitting, managing operations, and remediating mines, the U.S. can set a global standard for responsible mineral development and create good paying jobs in communities across the country. Additionally, we must increase coordination, transparency, and communication between federal agencies, and provide greater certainty for project sponsors for responsible domestic mining and extraction. Supporting a strong critical minerals sector, from mining to recycling, will create good-paying, union jobs in communities across the country.
- Deploy Hydrogen and Carbon Dioxide Infrastructure. Congress should address the siting of hydrogen and carbon dioxide pipelines and storage infrastructure and provide federal siting authority for such infrastructure. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 governs the designation of energy corridors on federal lands and covers oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines, and electric transmission lines. Such corridors are also suitable for carbon dioxide pipelines and need to be expanded in legislation to cover both prospectively designated and previously designated corridors.
- Incentivize Redevelopment for Clean Energy Deployment. Siting clean energy facilities on formerly contaminated sites, old mining sites, and closed landfills, and reducing threats presented at those sites, can meaningfully contribute to clean energy production, while also creating jobs and improving environmental conditions for nearby communities. The Environmental Protection Agency has pre-screened nearly 200,000 brownfield sites across the country that have clean energy potential. However, the potential that a developer could become liable for existing contamination can significantly curtail the use of brownfields. Congress should protect clean energy developers who build projects on sites pre-screened by EPA from liability for existing contamination when the developers make reasonable investments to address contamination and ensure their activities do not disturb contamination in a manner that increases the risks posed to human health and the environment.
Recommendations to Streamline the Permitting Process
- Improve Permitting Efficiency and Predictability. To build infrastructure expediently and responsibly, the necessary reviews, permits and approvals need to be robust, be completed within a predictable timeframe, and result in prompt and legally defensible decisions. To facilitate this process, Congress should act to further improve coordination of federal data sharing and reviews, expand the use of programmatic and tiered reviews, reduce the length of federal decision documents, and set reasonable decision time frames for projects. In making these reforms, Congress should:
- Create a programmatic review fund to provide the resources to execute more programmatic reviews – which can allow environmental review work to be re-used for multiple projects – by authorizing agencies to impose a fee on project sponsors to cover costs associated with a programmatic review upon which their project relies.
- Support long term programmatic review use to clarify that the analysis may be relied upon for five years, unless there are new circumstances and, that a programmatic review’s analysis should be able to be relied upon after five years so long as the agency reevaluates the analysis and finds that it continues to sufficiently analyze the project’s effects.
- Expand responsible use of administrative categorical exclusions. Congress should require Federal agencies to examine and propose the use of categorical exclusions for clean energy projects where feasible. More than 95% of Federal actions are already approved under the most expedited form of environmental reviews, which enables speedier reviews for projects that have minimal impact on the environment and public health.
- Enhance Data Collection Needed for Effective Permitting. Coordinated review and permitting among federal agencies requires not only a collaborative approach but also data collection and sharing between agencies. Today, many agencies are using antiquated IT systems, and some even continue to rely on paper systems. Congress should provide resources to:
- Develop an automated, joint electronic permit application for federal agencies.
- Create updated maps to help identify locations for project development, including: (1) documentation of sites listed on the National Registry of Historic Places; (2) in consultation with Tribes, maps of important cultural resources, (3) identification of projects for which environmental reviews have been conducted previously; (4) location of critical wildlife corridors; and (5) identification of impaired waterways.
- Establish clear information submission deadlines for all project developers to submit data required for federal agency reviews and decision-making.
- Develop automated workflow tools that are compatible with existing agency dashboards to transcend organizational boundaries and track project progress from start to finish. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) still operates a number of analog systems and could benefit from flexible investments in information technology (IT) modernization that helps district offices to digitize records that are essential to permitting projects the USACE will either deliver directly and/or permit.
- Create a permitting technology steering group to develop digital tools to facilitate environmental review and permitting processes across the Federal government, reducing duplication and increasing transparency, efficiency, and positive environmental, cultural, and community outcomes.
- Cut Duplicative and Burdensome Analysis and Reviews. Often environmental reviews and permitting processes need to be conducted sequentially, which can result in unnecessary delay and revisiting of decisions. Congress should address several areas where overlap occurs, including:
- Expediting transmission projects in designated transmission corridors by allowing projects to rely on the analysis included in corridor-wide programmatic environmental reviews without the need to re-analyze resources and impacts that have already been examined.
- Reforming the hydropower licensing process, including by recognizing Tribal authority over facilities on Tribal land, improving engagement with States, Tribes, and stakeholders, and shortening timelines for licensing decisions to allow well-operated hydropower facilities including pumped storage to function and, where appropriate, removing non-operational facilities.
- Improve Community Engagement. Agencies must facilitate meaningful engagement with local communities in environmental review and permitting processes. Early community engagement helps to identify and avoid conflicts, enhance public buy-in, and avoid surprises late in permitting processes that can disrupt timelines. Congress should:
- Require agencies to identify a Chief Community Engagement Officer to oversee community engagement in permitting processes across the agency.
- Establish a community engagement fund at each agency that agencies can draw from to provide community capacity grants to local governments, Tribes, or community groups to enhance capacity to engage on specific Federal actions that may affect them. Congress should authorize agencies to impose a fee on project sponsors where an environmental impact statement is being prepared to contribute to the community engagement fund.
- Direct the creation of a national map that would identify the location of each proposed Federal action that is being analyzed through an Environmental Impact Statement, to enable the public to more easily identify actions that may affect them.
- Allow agencies to transfer funds to Tribal Nations to enhance capacity to engage in National Historic Preservation Act consultations and to conduct cultural resource inventories.
- Address Gaps in the Permitting Workforce. While recent legislation has provided financial resources to federal agencies for permitting activities, Congress should continue efforts to ensure that the federal government has a sufficient workforce and sufficient resources to conduct needed project reviews and evaluate permits. This includes:
- Authorizing development, recruitment and retention of workers to conduct technical and scientific assessments, digital mapping and data management, and the review and processing of permits.
- Provide federal agencies with flexible hiring authorities for permitting and environmental review.
- Standardize the collection of fees to sufficiently fund permit program administration costs to provide agencies with resources to hire more permit writers, develop tools to oversee and track the timely and synchronized permit issuance within the environmental review process, engage more effectively with communities and pay for the operation and maintenance of electronic permitting platforms.
- Authorizing development, recruitment and retention of workers to conduct technical and scientific assessments, digital mapping and data management, and the review and processing of permits.
- Establish Clearer Requirements for Mitigating Environmental Harms. Congress should direct agencies to use their authority to require mitigation efforts, and make clear those efforts are able to satisfy environmental review requirements. This will enhance efficiency and improve certainty for project sponsors while producing better environmental outcomes, protecting public health, and advancing environmental justice.
- Incentivize State and Local Permitting Reform and Standardization. State and local governments across the country employ an inconsistent patchwork of processes and requirements to implement Federally-funded projects. States like Georgia and New York have successfully piloted models like the co-location of Federal and state permitting officials or the development of a one-stop shop for all necessary state permits and environmental reviews. Legislation that either standardizes state-level permitting processes or provides financial incentives for states that adopt best practices would significantly accelerate the delivery of both public and privately funded projects.
Accelerating Administration Permitting Actions to Deliver Results
The Biden-Harris Administration is not waiting on Congressional action to accelerate permitting. Last year the Administration released a Permitting Action Plan and is using its existing authorities, where additional Congressional action is not required, to accelerate project approvals to meet our infrastructure and clean energy goals while ensuring strong environmental protections and robust community engagement. Some examples include:
- Transmission: Today, the Biden-Harris Administration is announcing the completion of a new interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate the timely, responsible, and equitable permitting of electric transmission infrastructure. This will accelerate the permitting of transmission lines by directing the Department of Energy to use existing authority under the Federal Power Act to coordinate onshore transmission planning and permitting activities across the federal government. Moreover, it will direct Federal agencies to conduct federal permit decisions and environmental reviews for transmission lines within two years and allow applicants to petition the President directly to issue any permit, certification, or opinion if a permitting schedule milestone is missed or if an authorization is denied. This action will accelerate the development of transmission lines, building on robust efforts underway across the Administration – for example, the Department of Energy is advancing tools to designate electric transmission corridors.
- Renewable Energy on Public Land: The Administration is on track to achieve the goal of permitting at least 25 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy on public lands by 2025, with a five-agency collaboration to expedite these reviews. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has permitted more than 130 wind, solar and geothermal projects with a combined capacity of 14 GW of power which has the ability to serve approximately 4.2 million homes. BLM has 70 more projects under review, which have the potential to result in 32 GW more of clean power.
- Modernizing and Accelerating Environmental Reviews: The Biden-Harris Administration has clarified and restored basic safeguards for environmental reviews and issued guidance to agencies on how to account for climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, so fewer projects get tangled up in litigation and more projects get built right the first time. In fact, environmental impact statements under the Biden-Harris Administration are getting completed more quickly than they ever did under the previous Administration. To further improve the efficiency and effectiveness of environmental reviews, the White House Council on Environmental Quality will propose additional reforms to accelerate and improve environmental reviews, encourage early community engagement, advance environmental justice, and improve certainty and transparency for all stakeholders.
- Offshore Wind: The Administration has also developed an ambitious target for offshore wind, with a goal to deploy 30 gigawatts by 2030. The Department of the Interior (DOI) approved the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind projects, Vineyard Wind and South Fork Wind, both now under construction and being built by union labor. DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is on track to complete reviews of at least 16 project plans by 2025, representing more than 27 GW of clean energy, and has proposed reforms to modernize this process and save $1 billion over 20 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has advanced a range of environmental reviews, regulatory authorizations, and consultations to ensure protection of coastal and marine resources.