The Biden administration’s new permitting coordinator wants to whip agencies into shape so they can move faster on infrastructure projects that line up with the president’s agenda, especially offshore wind farms.
Christine Harada, the newly-minted executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, also said she’s intrigued by the idea of getting the agency involved in sectors that are priorities of the Biden administration, such as critical element mining and lead water pipe replacement.
The council’s role is to bring federal agencies together to smooth out permit reviews for large, complex infrastructure projects. Some projects it has shepherded through permitting include the Alaska LNG liquefied natural gas terminal, the 690-megawatt Gemini solar project in Nevada, and the 100-megawatt Borderlands wind farm in New Mexico.
Getting better collaboration on offshore wind is “about rebuilding the interagency muscle, if you will, around coordination,” Harada told Bloomberg Law in her first interview since taking starting the job on July 6.
In many sectors, “especially offshore wind, a lot of the agencies have not been working together for a couple of years,” Harada said. “With this change in administration priorities, it’s like, ‘Oh, we have to rub that muscle up again.’”
The council’s current budget is $10 million. President Joe Biden’s budget plan proposes $10.65 million for fiscal 2022.
The Biden administration has said it wants to reach 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. So far, however, the U.S. is home to only two small offshore wind projects, delivering less than 50 megawatts.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has received more than a dozen applications for offshore wind construction along the East Coast.
The regulatory process for building offshore wind is notoriously tricky, requiring various federal and state agencies to come together under different statutes and arrive at the same decision.
“Just because we all speak English doesn’t mean we speak the same English. And of course, we all have different priorities,” Harada said. “So I view a lot of my job as figuring out where are the obstacles, likely driven by just misunderstandings.”
Permitting can get snagged because every agency has its own organic statute governing how it issues permits, and its own attorneys with different legal opinions on how to move forward, according to Alex Herrgott, who held Harada’s job during the Trump administration.
“You have legacy laws that are incongruent because they were passed out of different committees over 80 years,” Herrgott said. “It makes it very difficult to get things done.”
If agencies find themselves deadlocked for more than 60 days, the permitting council’s authorizing statute directs the Office of Management and Budget to step in and resolve disputes. The budget office has never yet had to intervene, but Harada said she’ll try to resolve impasses “both in the dispute resolution context and otherwise.”
Harada said she expects the work will be eased by preexisting relationships she has with people like Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory, National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, and decision makers in various agencies.
Many of those relationships were forged in Harada’s previous government experience, which includes stints as the Obama administration’s White House chief sustainability officer and acting chief of staff at the General Services Administration.
Harada also has served as vice president of government affairs at Heliogen, a solar energy company based in Pasadena, Calif., that has the backing of Bill Gates.
More Mining, Lead Pipes?
Harada said she wants to huddle with the other council members to discuss whether the agency should get more involved in mining and lead pipe replacement projects. The Biden administration has said it wants to dig up more minerals like lithium to power a domestic clean energy sector, and to replace all the nation’s lead water pipes.
“I do think that there sensitive topics, like mining, that we need to be very thoughtful about,” Harada said. “I can see where having a coordinating function, like a permitting council, could be helpful in driving accountability and delivery.”
The agency is already authorized to work on water resource projects and certain types of mining. But broadening the agency’s scope would require Harada to reach out to the business community and convince project backers to sign up for the permitting council’s voluntary services, according to Herrgott.
“The job is being a salesman,” he said. “If they don’t bring in a bunch of new projects this year, next year the appropriators will say, ‘This project doesn’t work.’ Marketing is a big deal.”
Harada also sees opportunities for smaller-bore fixes that can make the permitting council work more efficiently. For example, she said she recently tried to download data from the agency’s online dashboard—a directory of federal permitting activities that lets stakeholders quickly see where applications stand—and was inundated with 1,100 lines in an Excel spreadsheet.
“There’s a ton of data cleanup that needs to happen,” Harada said. “Even for people like me, who like to just toy with data, it would be helpful to have it in a clear format.”
She also committed to taking into account the environmental impacts that permitting decisions have on low income communities of color.
“If it takes us a little longer so that we save ourselves a ton of litigation on the back end, and help to right at least some of the injustices that have happened in our history, I think it’s a worthwhile investment of our time,” Harada said.