Electric cooperatives work to improve the quality of life across all the communities they serve. But too often, infrastructure projects that would serve that mission are hampered by extensive delays and added costs from outdated federal environmental permitting rules, say NRECA experts.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Under a proposal that would modernize the National Environmental Policy Act, federal approvals and permits required to build and maintain electric infrastructure to assure affordable and reliable power would follow a stricter timeline and more streamlined process.
The reforms, advanced by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, would also make it easier for co-ops working to rebuild more resilient infrastructure following natural disasters to receive assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
NRECA’s Janelle Lemen, regulatory issues director, and Bobby Hamill, legislative affairs director, discussed the importance of supporting NEPA reform and what it means for co-ops’ operations and bottom line.
What is NEPA, and why is it problematic for electric co-ops?
Lemen: The National Environmental Policy Act is a procedural statute that requires all federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of proposed actions such as providing funding or issuing permits for infrastructure projects.
Co-op activities that trigger NEPA include accepting RUS loans, FEMA aid or Department of Energy grants. Crossing federal lands with power lines and diversifying energy portfolios also require NEPA review.
NEPA doesn’t work like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, which dictate specific requirements and outcomes to protect the environment. Instead, NEPA is a process originated to facilitate agency decision-making and inform the public of those decisions.
As the program evolved over decades, many agencies produced ever-longer environmental reports that typically run thousands of pages and take years to complete in what is largely a failed attempt to make them “litigation proof.” In fact, the process has created too much litigation and has become counterproductive to public engagement.
Hamill: Not just electric utilities but many sectors—transportation, manufacturing, agriculture—face lengthy NEPA delays to develop and maintain infrastructure. In the electric sector, co-ops are heavily impacted by NEPA. By serving roughly 56% of the nation’s landmass, including a lot of federal land, co-ops often find themselves having to work through the NEPA process.
Project delays due to the extended NEPA permitting process and litigation all come at the expense of members. As the delays add up, the cost comes out of our consumer-members’ pockets.
How is NRECA pursuing NEPA reform?
Hamill: NRECA recently briefed a large audience of congressional staff on the proposed NEPA reforms. We emphasized how electric co-ops serve rural America and the importance of keeping costs down while co-ops provide reliable and affordable power to their members. We discussed how the NEPA reforms would continue to protect the environment while supporting the goals of reducing the time and expense involved in co-op projects.
We also are looking for opportunities for Congress to complement this administration’s efforts to ensure these NEPA reforms are permanent.
Lemen: We advocate for streamlined permitting and educate key federal agencies on how NEPA modernization will improve co-op operations and reduce delays, while continuing environmental protections. NRECA will be submitting supportive comments to the CEQ, and we encourage other co-ops to do so, too. Comments are due to the CEQ by March 10.
We are also pressing the CEQ and other agencies to promptly finalize these changes to prevent critical co-op infrastructure projects from facing additional costs and delays.
How do we protect the environment while making comprehensive changes to NEPA?
Lemen: The proposed NEPA updates aim to clarify key definitions, set timelines and page limits for documents, and improve coordination among agencies. We see the reduction of delays and associated costs of the environmental reviews, coupled with making the process transparent for the public to participate, as a net benefit. Since NEPA is a procedural statute, the reforms will not change the compliance requirements under the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act or the Endangered Species Act or any other environmental protections out there.
NRECA supports the spirit of NEPA process where we can consider environmental impacts before undertaking an action or infrastructure project. However, over 40 years, the NEPA process has evolved into a system that routinely generates reams of paperwork, blocks progress, and adds unreasonable delays and costs. Modernizing NEPA will create opportunities for electric co-ops to promote energy diversity, protect reliability and the environment, and minimize undue economic impact for consumers.