A federal office that helps project developers navigate the maze of environmental permitting requirements has seen a recent increase in applications, raising hopes that the office can help the White House reach its many infrastructure goals.
Some of those targets include the deployment of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, the enhancement of the nation’s power grid, and the construction or upgrade of thousands of miles of roads.
The Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council has fielded more than 13 new applications in just the past four months, Christine Harada, the council’s executive director, said at a Wednesday briefing convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Some of the new projects taken on by the council—whose services are voluntary—include major offshore wind developments and a large transmission line, she said. The council works to bring various agencies together to iron out complex environmental permit reviews and avoid any surprises that could stall projects.
“We’re starting to hear about hydrogen hubs, carbon capture—just thinking through the different kinds of permits,” she said.
Not Enough Funding
But there still isn’t enough funding for agencies to get permitting done, she said. For example, Harada noted that funding raised from wind area lease options now goes exclusively to the US Treasury.
“Could we not allocate even a small percentage of that to permitting?” she said. “Because we are providing these lease options specifically for project developer opportunity for investment in our infrastructure. Can we not shave off a little bit of it, so that we can help execute it and make it a reality? That would be amazing.”
The council has also started working with states to develop memorandums of understanding that formalize the interactions between itself and various levels of local government, according to Harada.
The council has hammered out a memo with Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to get on the same page about how project milestones will be managed and how the teams will work together on a pair of ecosystem restoration projects worth some $6 billion, Harada said.
Other outreach efforts are taking place with states on broadband projects, she said.
“How do we want to think about collaborating with both state government, as well as with the Department of Transportation?” Harada said.
She also said work is continuing on a call the White House made in May for sector-specific teams under the White House Climate Policy Office and National Economic Council to send the steering council a plan for speeding up the permitting of projects like offshore wind and climate-smart infrastructure.
A cross-agency working group is trying to ensure that the charters in the plans are “very much tailored and fit for purpose for those particular sectors,” Harada said.
The council is also in the process of standing up a blanket order agreement to agencies to support their contracting needs, she said. That work is being undertaken in collaboration with acquisition specialists at the General Services Administration.
A steering council spokeswoman compared the program to a “marketplace that GSA intends to establish with a group of vendors that offer a wide variety of National Environmental Policy Act-related services” that agencies are likely to need.
Harada also said Congress’ reauthorization of the council in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill enabled it to recruit new employees and get fully staffed up. President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2023 budget request would increase staffing at FPISC from 15 to 25 full-time employees.
“The moment we were permanently authorized, resumes started coming in,” she said. “People started reaching out, wanting to talk to us as an amazing opportunity.”