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January 9, 2018

Federal Permits Delay Renewable Energy Project for Over a Decade

Bill Miller, president of the Power Company of Wyoming (PCW), was skeptical when federal regulators told him it might take five years to get the green light to build a 1,000-turbine wind farm on a mix of federal and private land. “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard,” he replied.

And it was – but not for the reasons Miller thought at the time.

In total, it took federal regulators a decade–or double the time–to complete the permitting process and all the necessary environmental reviews for work to begin on the TransWest Express, even though the transmission line was a no-brainer for consumers and renewable energy advocates alike because it will eventually carry power generated on a sprawling Wyoming wind farm to homes and businesses in California, Arizona and Nevada.

The federal government was simply not prepared to handle the permitting process for an $8 billion-dollar project that traversed 700 miles of public and private land. PCW had to specifically coordinate its application with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Reclamation, the Western Area Power Administration and numerous other federal and state agencies. These agencies often had conflicting policies, separate permitting requirements and no clear lines of communication. This bureaucratic slog ultimately delayed the construction of a shovel-ready project which would’ve created more than 1,000 jobs in Wyoming and provided cheap renewable energy to three states that need it.

Although work finally began on the wind turbine and transmission line late last year, Vice President and General Counsel for the project Roxane Perruso testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month to recommend ways in which the federal government can ease the regulatory burden for similar infrastructure projects. Ms. Perruso stressed that the permitting process could be, “Improved through increased consistency, coordination, clear line authority, utilization of basic project management tools, and accountability.” Ms. Perruso also noted that many of the federal agencies experienced a high rate of staff turnover, which often forced PCW to have to restart many permits. She concluded her testimony by arguing that, “agencies should be implementing basic project management tools such as budgets, consistency in personnel, and schedules and should be held accountable for meeting them.”

As Bill Miller learned the hard way, federal regulations often stymie and slow the construction of critical infrastructure because private developers and investors must coordinate with a myriad of federal agencies and endure time consuming permitting processes. Hopefully, Ms. Perruso’s insights can help Congress and the federal government avoid decade-long delays on similar shovel ready infrastructure projects by increasing the accountability, transparency and consistency of the federal regulatory and permitting process.

Thankfully, Miller was patient enough to navigate those delays. Others aren’t. By reforming this process, we can make sure they don’t need to be.