Federal environmental regulations that often delay and drive up costs on projects like grid maintenance, renewable energy deployments and rural broadband are getting a long-overdue makeover, and that’s a good thing for electric cooperatives.
Starting Sept. 14, the National Environmental Policy Act will offer a more efficient and predictable federal permitting process under a final rule announced this week by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said co-ops support the spirit of NEPA and welcomed the comprehensive update of the 42-year-old policy.
“Regulatory hurdles under NEPA have triggered reliability challenges and forced electric co-ops and their communities to endure costly project delays,” Matheson said. “The reform of this policy synchronizes environmental reviews and decisions and provides electric co-ops much-needed clarity and certainty as they continue to diversify their energy portfolios and increase the resiliency of their systems.”
Co-ops face NEPA requirements when seeking a variety of federal permits, approvals and financial assistance. That includes gaining access to power line rights of way on federal lands to conduct vegetation management and equipment maintenance.
Borrowing money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for building or maintaining generation, transmission or broadband infrastructure also involves NEPA. And after disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, co-ops must secure NEPA approvals to rebuild more resilient infrastructure.
The modernized policy streamlines the process for environmental reviews required before a permitting decision. Environmental Impact Statements must now be done within two years and be no more than 150 pages in most cases. Environmental Assessments must be completed within one year and are limited to 75 pages.
Without such limits, projects often experience excruciating delays. One co-op reported that the NEPA process took nearly four years to permit a 150-mile transmission line and associated facilities needed to enhance reliability.
Now, just one environmental document and record of decision will be required, even when multiple agencies are involved, and a new process will be available to resolve disputes. And co-ops will be allowed to play a greater role in contributing information and material to prepare the environmental documents about their proposed projects.
Janelle Lemen, NRECA regulatory director, underscored how these NEPA process improvements are needed more than ever.
“This final rule does not change compliance requirements with other environmental laws, but rather it refocuses NEPA on its original intent to reduce delays and promote better agency decision-making, while safeguarding our environment,” she said. “It will unlock opportunities for co-ops to continue to meet the needs of their local communities and help spur economic recovery during these challenging times.”
Q&A: Modernizing the Federal Environmental Permitting Process