January 04, 2016

New Federal Permitting Council to Aid Large Infrastructure Projects — Emphasis on Energy

In December 2015, Congress passed the first major transportation infrastructure bill in over a decade, covering a large range of infrastructure projects and ensuring funding for the next five years. One section of the bill establishes a new federal permitting council that aims to streamline the federal permitting process for large infrastructure projects, particularly energy projects.

The infrastructure included in the permitting measure extends beyond roads, highways and bridges — it includes aviation, ports and waterways; construction of infrastructure for conventional and renewable energy projects; electricity transmission and pipelines; and broadband and other telecommunications infrastructure. Its scope would essentially include any project requiring federal authorization or environmental reviews. The new council is intended to speed up the approval process for large-scale energy projects.

The Federal Permitting Improvement Council, as it will be known, will be led by an executive director appointed by the President. The council will consist of high-level officials representing more than a dozen agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Department of Transportation and Federal Communications Commission.

Bringing regulators to one table will achieve greater communication between agencies. The council will also be tasked with creating a set of best practices and manageable timelines in an effort to cut down on permitting time and remove politics from the permitting process. At the director’s designation, a facilitating agency will be determined from among the participants for each covered category of authorization. Furthermore, the agency will allow for three or more contiguous states to form an interstate compact establishing regional infrastructure development agencies to work under the council’s supervision to carry out the permitting objectives.

Establishment of this body is expected to increase regulatory certainty in the permitting process. Streamlining permitting and coordinating efforts across agencies is a step in the right direction for anyone interested in investing in America’s infrastructure. The establishment of one facilitating agency should reduce the headache of applying for a permit through multiple agencies with sometimes competing interests and objectives. Taken in conjunction with the recently passed energy tax extenders, Congress is hopefully sending a strong message to the bureaucracy that they want to see large-scale energy projects developed more quickly. Implementation issues are expected as the new council gets started, but anyone desiring to build an energy project requiring multiple federal permits should welcome this development.

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