By Stephen Lee
The man who tried to speed up federal permitting during the Trump administration is now trying to help states do the same thing.
The efforts underway in California, Florida, Louisiana, Alaska, and elsewhere could cut state permitting timelines in half, according to Alex Herrgott, former head of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council. The council brings federal agencies together to smooth out permit reviews for large infrastructure projects.
The changes not only would get projects like wind farms, solar projects, and transmission lines built faster, he said, but also would keep investors from growing impatient and pulling their money out.
“It really is the dark ages in some states, and that’s a problem,” Herrgott said.
But environmental groups warn that any bid to streamline permitting risks cutting out the public or bypassing needed analysis.
At the heart of the permitting overhaul effort is a package of changes that include deadlines for permitting decisions, an executive director in each state who can step in and resolve interagency disputes, and technology that displays real-time permitting status at the agencies involved.
State and federal regulators often have overlapping responsibilities, but rarely coordinate, said Herrgott, now president of The Permitting Institute, a pro-development association in Washington, D.C. As a result, a project that secures its federal permits may need two or three more years to secure its state permits, he said.
At least one state is on board. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed a bill on June 30 creating a state permitting director’s office and setting timelines for state agency decisions.
Herrgott, who helped shepherd the bill through the legislature, said the changes will accelerate more than $20 billion in fossil and renewable energy projects in Arizona.
In California, the Department of Transportation is running pilot programs to implement a group of 2019 recommendations to smooth out permitting snags, including stronger coordination among agencies and an effort to anticipate the impacts of permitting decisions.
Herrgott’s group is also working with legislators, tribes, and project developers in Maryland, Nevada, Florida, Arkansas, Idaho, and other states to roll out permitting dashboards online. Like the federal steering council’s dashboard, the state versions are meant to improve accountability and transparency by showing, at a glance, which agencies are responsible for what.
Congress is also getting involved. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced a bill July 13 that would let the permitting council pay state and tribal governments to “facilitate timely and efficient environmental reviews.” The bill, cosponsored by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), is part of the recent bipartisan infrastructure agreement.
At the federal level, communication and transparency are helping make the process more efficient, said a Republican Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That’s something that state governments could use more of,” she said.
One project that proponents say could benefit from smoother coordination is the Vineyard Wind 2 project, a proposed 800-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.
Massachusetts and Rhode Island’s mitigation plans conflict with federal permits from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Marine Fisheries Service, “so even with federal permits in hand, the siloed nature of federal and state reviews leave project sponsors fighting a confusing permitting battle on two fronts,” Herrgott said.
Another is the Ten West Link, a planned 114-mile transmission line from Arizona to California. The federal permitting process got underway in 2016, but the project “continues to experience pauses and delays” due to conflicts between state and federal processes, Herrgott said.
But environmentalists are dubious that more efficient permitting will lead to environmentally sound decisions.
“Some folks conveniently try to claim that the only way to be ‘efficient’ is to cut out public participation from decision making, because the public might not agree with what they are trying to do,” said Stephen Schima, senior legislative counsel with Earthjustice. “Efficiency is not more important than democracy.”
Brandt Mannchen, the forest management issue chair for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, said he has deep reservations about the idea of streamlining permitting.
“Whenever you hear someone say, ‘Let’s streamline, let’s make it more efficient,’ the coded message really is, ‘Let’s cut out public comment, force the agencies not to do a good analysis, and just get the damn thing approved so we can build it,’” Mannchen said.
He also said environmental justice communities—whose members often have difficulty taking time off to attend public meetings on planned projects—are often the ones most affected by truncated permitting deadlines.
But Herrgott said the changes he’s working on don’t speed up permitting or alter environmental laws.
“State permitting councils are not a Republican or Democrat political tool to expedite a project,” he said. “They do not guarantee an outcome, only that a decision is made in a timely manner.”
The threat of private money walking away from a stalled project is real, according to Christine Harada, current head of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council.
“Many government actions appear like it’s a black box,” she said. “[Developers] just don’t understand, when you’re on the other side. It’s hard to gain that kind of visibility. And then cynicism ends up tending to develop. And capital is not that patient.”
Harada also said she finds the dashboard idea intriguing—but that it depends on the state.
“For a large state like California, I think that can make a lot of really good sense, just with the size and scale of our economy, and our needs and challenges,” she said. “If you’re a much smaller state, like a West Virginia or Massachusetts, maybe not.”
The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Law is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at [email protected]
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By Stephen Lee