For the full report, see "NEPA Permitting Process Crucial to Renewable Infrastructure Project Success"
The report provides further detail on these five clean energy infrastructure projects and the benefits of NEPA.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), enacted by Congress in 1970, functions as a critical climate action and environmental justice tool, requiring agencies to consider the environmental and public health impacts of proposed federal actions. NEPA provisions provide guidance on how federal agencies must conduct their environmental reviews and require open comment periods to members of the public who would be affected by the proposed federal action. NEPA is the bedrock of community empowerment within federal decision-making, providing a vital pathway through which local residents are able to make their voices heard during the project planning and development process. When done right, NEPA creates opportunities to address conflicts that could otherwise stymie projects, helping identify improvements that benefit all sides.
Coordination between project developers and community stakeholders is the foundation of a just and equitable clean energy future.
Even so, NEPA’s environmental review process has become a common scapegoat for project delays. However, studies show that, in reality, delays in the permitting process for major infrastructure projects are most often caused by “inadequate agency budgets, staff turnover, delays receiving information from permit applicants, and compliance with other laws.” But that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from attempting to weaken and even completely eliminate federal environmental review requirements or similar attempts from the House Republicans caucus led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) during the debt ceiling negotiations in June 2023.
It is critical that the record of what actually causes delays in the permitting process is corrected—not only to preserve this bedrock environmental law, but also to defend the collection and consideration of public input and to ensure affected communities have a chance to weigh in on project alternatives.
5 major renewable infrastructure stories
A new report commissioned by the Center for American Progress and authored by Ted Boling and Kerensa Gimre of Perkins Coie LLP examines five successful renewable energy and transmission projects, analyzing how they proceeded through the NEPA process and identifying best practices. Together, these five examples illustrate that the successful completion of a project often requires more focus on how communities benefit from a project, rather than how fast agencies move paperwork.
Every major infrastructure project will involve some degree of conflict, and NEPA provides a critical tool for examining trade-offs. Community benefit agreements and other forms of compensatory mitigation can benefit both affected communities and project developers. Proactively seeking early and effective engagement with stakeholders can help avoid delays and improve outcomes, though different communities will require different methods of engagement. Different communities also offer different types of expertise, such as the traditional ecological knowledge of Tribes, which can improve outcomes substantially.
The selected projects include renewable energy and transmission infrastructure. By identifying, amplifying, and supporting examples of successful stakeholder engagement throughout the NEPA process, this column and the accompanying report aim to provide a guide of the best practices for achieving renewable energy goals with communities at the center of project development and agencies’ decision-making. The report defines success as not just efficient timelines but also benefits gained by the community—trust, pollution reduction, good-paying union jobs, climate change adaptation, ecosystem restoration, among other environmental benefits. These benefits are achieved through meaningful public engagement, defined as “a process that proactively seeks full representation from the community, considers public comments and feedback, and incorporates that feedback into a project, program, or plan when possible.”
These five major infrastructure projects demonstrate the following:
- The absence of opposition to a major infrastructure project is an unrealistic standard of success. Real trade-offs must be examined, and conflicts must be expected and managed.
- Early and effective engagement with all stakeholders can help avoid delays in the project life cycle. This includes local, state, Tribal, and federal stakeholders.
- While solutions for one project can serve as a useful precedent for another, methods of engagement are not one-size-fits-all and should be addressed community by community.
- The traditional ecological knowledge and special expertise of Tribes should be utilized throughout the NEPA process as a benefit to Tribes, the developer, and other stakeholders.
- Community benefit agreements and other forms of compensatory mitigation can benefit both affected communities and project developers.
Ten West Link
Ten West Link is a 125-mile, 500-kilovolt (kV) transmission project running across Arizona and California that is expected to deliver 3,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity and expanded renewable capacity and energy storage to the region. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began public engagement for this project by soliciting input from nearly 1,000 entities, including members of the public, agencies, and Tribal representatives, and by holding three public informational meetings during initial scoping. Additionally, the BLM hosted a workshop to identify social and economic issues and opportunities that affect the community. During the workshop and comment period, stakeholders expressed concerns regarding the project’s impacts on scenic quality, recreational trails, and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. Through continued solicitation of input and evaluation of trade-offs, the project developers found an alternative route that avoided the wildlife refuge and reservation land. Local and national groups that originally opposed the project later provided letters of support due to the alternative minimized ecological and economic impacts to the affected community.
Vineyard Wind 1
Vineyard Wind 1 is an offshore wind farm currently in development off the coast of Massachusetts that is expected to provide 800 MW of electricity to 400,000 homes in the state. In response to opposition from the National Audubon Society, Vineyard Wind developed avian survey and monitoring programs that are now the standard for all Atlantic offshore wind projects. This garnered the National Audubon Society’s support for not only this project, but also other offshore wind projects that follow this model. Vineyard Wind negotiated the nation’s first federally recognized offshore wind community benefit agreement that provides financial support to a local cooperative that advocates for local control of renewable energy resources. As a result of Vineyard Wind’s early and extensive public engagement, only four years passed from the project’s initial proposal to construction.
Gemini Solar is a 690-MW integrated solar photovoltaic and battery storage facility sited on roughly 6,000 acres of federal land near Las Vegas. The project is expected to provide power to 260,000 homes during peak periods. Only two years lapsed between the filing of the project application and the project’s approval by the BLM. After conducting extensive location and technology deconfliction, the most contentious pathways were removed from consideration before even submitting the initial application, making the permitting process more efficient. A particular highlight of the project is that the NEPA process incorporated traditional ecological knowledge of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, who later served as a partner on the project. The partnership with the Tribe allowed for a more efficient management of project trade-offs, mitigated potential impacts, and provided greater benefits for the affected community and the project developer.
South Fork Wind
South Fork Wind is a 130-MW, utility-scale offshore wind farm project off the coast of Rhode Island that includes 12 wind turbines and a transmission system, with the capacity to generate wind power for 70,000 homes and businesses. Following comments from public stakeholders, South Fork Wind scaled back the project size from 15 to 12 wind turbines and the lease area where development was planned. The project negotiated a community benefit agreement worth $29 million with the township of East Hampton, New York, and its trustees. Beyond the monetary commitments of the community benefit agreement, South Fork Wind also committed to hiring within the local community and ensuring maintenance of the turbines will be an established business within the township.
SunZia Southwest Transmission Project
SunZia Southwest Transmission Project (SunZia) is a wind and transmission project aimed at producing wind energy in New Mexico and delivering it to New Mexico, Arizona, and other states in the southwest region. The project includes two 500-kV transmission lines that would deliver 4,500 MW of electricity across 520 miles of federal, state, and private land.
SunZia is an example of how failure to engage with communities early on can drastically prolong a project. The project faced firm opposition from the community due to concerns regarding national security and impacts on migratory birds and tourism. Unfortunately, these concerns were not addressed until after the community led an effective push for the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to reject the project. The rejection led SunZia to conduct a siting study to evaluate alternative routes, and a new route was chosen that avoided areas facing community opposition due to ecological concerns. Once collaboration between project developers and stakeholders began, SunZia agreed to model commitments to additional environmental mitigation measures beyond the industry standard, and the project was able to move forward.
NEPA supports meaningful stakeholder engagement that is essential to deliver timely projects and mutually beneficial outcomes, including by smoothing approvals and community trust for similar projects in the future. These case studies demonstrate that recent permitting reform efforts have been misguided. Further federal action on permitting reform must protect and support robust and meaningful public engagement to ensure better and more resilient infrastructure projects are delivered faster. Coordination between project developers and community stakeholders is the foundation of a just and equitable clean energy future.
The author would like to thank Ted Boling and Kerensa Gimre of Perkins Coie LLP for their contributions to this column.