Bloomberg Law
May 24, 2023, 9:30 AM

Clean Grid Developers See Teeth in Federal Permitting Deadlines

Daniel Moore
Daniel Moore

Electric transmission developers seeking individual permits from multiple federal agencies can soon hold the government accountable, all the way up to the president, for leading a single environmental review process capped at no more than two years.

The Energy Department’s agreement with eight other agencies and offices, finalized this month, is a long-sought move under 18-year-old legal authority that promises to speed clean energy deployment, according to energy and grid analysts.

The deadlines are seen as a short-term regulatory tool as the Biden administration and Congress weigh using federal authority to approve transmission line projects altogether, arguing delays hamper renewable energy and leave the grid vulnerable to power outages and price spikes.

“This isn’t a silver bullet, but getting the federal government to work in a coordinated fashion—in a transparent fashion—with some real authority behind it, will help,” said Brian Turner, regulatory director of Western states for Advanced Energy United, a trade association of clean energy companies that include transmission developers.

The multi-agency memorandum of understanding pledges to stick to the two-year environmental review deadlines. It establishes a single point of contact at each agency and a process that allows project applicants and states to appeal any delayed or denied permits to the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget, and, eventually, the president.

Signatory agencies also include the departments of Interior, Agriculture, Defense, and Commerce; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council.

The plan requires that applicants participate in a pre-application process, which includes filing resource reports and community engagement plans prior to submitting a formal application.

Prompt Action

The process “will result in prompt review and action,” Maria Robinson, director of the department’s Grid Deployment Office, said in a statement to Bloomberg Law.

“This MOU addresses one major barrier to expanding transmission capacity across the U.S.,” Robinson said. “At the same time, the MOU also reinforces this administration’s commitment to maintaining strong environmental review practices. We anticipate the process kicked off by this MOU will reduce inefficiencies in federal transmission permitting while also ensuring meaningful community engagement occurs early and often in the development of much-needed electric transmission infrastructure.”

The Energy Department’s authority to establish corridors originates in a section of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

“For the last 18 years, however, this did not happen, because the agencies did not all agree to follow DOE’s lead,” said Rob Gramlich, founder and president of Grid Strategies, a consulting firm, and energy grid expert.

“The current White House finally exercised the leadership needed to get the agencies to agree and sign the MOU,” Gramlich said. “The arrangement promises to be extremely helpful.”

The Energy Department plans to release a standard schedule identifying general steps to meet permitting deadlines in July, the agreement stated. The department must update its regulations with the terms of the agreement by November.

High Hurdles

Even with the federal commitments, long-haul transmission lines will still face high hurdles at the state level and with another federal regulator that has to observe its own timelines and processes.

State officials, who oversee permitting of transmission lines in their states, would still be able to block or delay a project, and local governments, tribes, and conservation groups can wield influence in those proceedings. State officials have expressed concerns about calls for the federal government to approve projects if the state denies a permit or doesn’t act fast enough.

“We don’t think that removing the states is actually going to reduce the time frames,” said Greg White, executive director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which represents state officials.

“The sense is, if they can remove the state authority on siting these, that these projects will proceed quicker—and we disagree with that,” White said in an interview last year.

This month, the Energy Department published a notice of intent and request for information to establish a process to declare national interest electric transmission corridors. A corridor designation would unlock federal financing tools, including a $2.5 billion public-private partnership program established by the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58) and a $2 billion loan program set up by last year’s climate law (Public Law 117-169).

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be able to approve projects in those designated corridors over state objections or delays. In December, the regulator proposed a rule to establish that process.

The federal agencies’ permitting deadlines wouldn’t apply to the process at FERC, according to the agreement. In public comments on the FERC process due last week, the American Council on Renewable Energy pressed the commission to clarify whether the Energy Department’s permitting agreement provision—including binding deadlines and an option to appeal to the president—could apply to projects in the corridors that FERC is tasked with permitting.

“We’re talking about a process that would require FERC to simply step in the shoes of the states if they’re unable to agree, unable to act within a certain time period,” FERC Chairman Willie Phillips told reporters last week.

“This process will take time,” Phillips cautioned. “We will have to have our own environmental reviews. We’ll have to have our own permitting process. And I’m sure, because this is FERC, there will be appeals.”

Trimming Timelines

Even with those challenges, two-year federal permitting deadlines could dramatically shorten transmission project timelines, particularly those connecting new solar and wind resources in the West, where abundant federal lands have been eyed for development by US officials.

“The speed of permitting—at least where we can, on federal lands—is critical,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said while teasing the agreement last month.

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management issued final approval for the 520-mile SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, which plans to connect Arizona to a New Mexico wind farm to enable the largest renewable energy project in US history. SunZia was first drawn up in 2006.

And in April, the land bureau approved the 732-mile TransWest Express transmission project that will connect a wind farm in Wyoming to Nevada. The agency started reviewing that project in 2008.

Some federal environmental reviews take one to two years, but some can take four to five years, said Amanda Welch, a grids and utilities research analyst for BloombergNEF.

Federal and state agencies “lack a lot of resources, both money and people, and that has been a big backlog and caused a lot of delays,” Welch said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Moore in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at; JoVona Taylor at

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