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Tiny Office That Speeds Environmental Permits to Get Bigger (1)

Jan. 16, 2020, 8:53 PMUpdated: Jan. 16, 2020, 11:09 PM

The head of a small federal office tasked with speeding up environmental permitting said he plans to increase staff and market the group’s existence more aggressively to private companies and local governments.

The bid to expand the influence of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council may have already begun: on Wednesday, the office announced it added hardrock mining and land revitalization to the list of sectors it works on.

The council’s expanded mandate jibes with President Donald Trump’s efforts to speed environmental permitting, including recent major changes to National Environmental Policy Act rules.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, lauded the move. She said in a statement it will “ensure that mining projects benefit from the permitting transparency and accountability that many other major projects already receive.”

But the group’s addition of hardrock mining immediately raised the ire of environmentalists, who say the independent steering council isn’t authorized to reach beyond infrastructure projects like roads, ports, pipelines, and electrical transmission lines.

The council is an interagency body that brings federal agencies together to ensure they adhere to permitting timelines, and no time-sucking surprises pop up midway due to poor communication between agencies, its executive director, Alex Herrgott, told Bloomberg Environment. Its work has helped speed permitting for projects including solar panels and wetlands restoration.

But the council has also worked on projects that some environmental groups, tribes, and local communities oppose, such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station outside Homestead, Fla.

Quadruple Funding

Created by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 during the Obama administration, the council’s work also fits with Trump administration priorities. The White House Council for Environmental Quality last week issued a proposal to streamline the permitting rules under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Thanks to budget increases that have quadrupled from fiscal 2018 to $8 million in fiscal 2020, Herrgott said he wants to increase staffing from four full-time employees to between 20 and 30. The council’s ranks will be further augmented by a dozen people on loan from other agencies, he said.

The Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council will use its funding to do more outreach with government agencies and private businesses with major projects on the horizon. Many of them don’t even know the office exists, Herrgott said.

Those efforts will widen the council’s reach, letting it work on speeding up more projects across the country, he said.

By streamlining permitting, the council has saved projects more than $1 billion in total, said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who cosponsored the legislation that created the office.

Adding New Sectors

Environmental groups objected after the council on Wednesday said its members voted to expand services to non-energy mining and land revitalization projects, referring to redevelopment of abandoned and contaminated properties.

The council is a federal agency, which means the addition of new sectors should have required notice and comment rulemaking, according to Tom Waldo, a staff attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Moreover, the legislation authorizing the council limits its work to major infrastructure projects, Waldo said.

Herrgott described the council as a voluntary group, not an agency. A council memo sent on Wednesday argued a majority vote by council members is all that is required to add new sectors, and that environmental laws still apply.

The disagreement may end up being litigated, Waldo said.

Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel at Earthworks, said mining is particularly unfit for fast-tracked permitting because every mine site has its own geology, hydrology, and geochemistry, and must be studied carefully.

Praise for Council’s Work

Some project sponsors say the council’s work has delivered significant benefits.

For example, the the Army Corps of Engineers initially told the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority that permitting for a $1.5 billion sediment diversion project would take a decade, said Robert G. Szabo, a partner with Van Ness Feldman LLP who represents the coastal authority.

After the steering council got involved, it was able to cut the permitting down to just over three years by creating a coordinated plan for all the participating agencies, and making sure studies and other types of analysis didn’t take too long.

“It takes the confusion out of the system,” Szabo said. “It’s been a very good thing. If you’re losing land like we are every day, and you don’t have to spend 10 years in permitting before you can get on with doing your project, that’s good for the environment.”

Similarly, the council helped the 450-megawatt Desert Quartzite LLC solar project in Riverside County, Calif., get its environmental permits in five years, according to Laura Abram, director of project execution and public affairs at First Solar Inc., which owns the project.

The Bureau of Land Management issued a final record of decision on Desert Quartzite yesterday, greenlighting construction.

Scott Slesinger, a former Senate and House aide and former legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council who is now retired, said the council “is working as intended” and doing a good job of snipping out unnecessary delays.

Still, environmentalists say they’re worried the council could approve projects whose environmental benefits are more questionable than those of solar panels or wetlands restoration.

“What this process does is set shortened deadlines for getting reviews done, shortens periods for public comment, and limits the alternatives that can be considered,” Waldo said.

(Adds comments from Sen. Lisa Murkowski in fourth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com