Electric Co-op Leaders Call on Congress to Pass Permitting Reform

Co-op leaders support provisions in the BUILDER Act to streamline federal permitting. (Photo By: eric1513/Getty Images)

Electric cooperative leaders urged Congress to pass federal permitting reform legislation, warning that delays in approving projects to modernize electric power systems could threaten grid reliability.

“We’re looking at a significant electrification of the U.S. economy in transportation and other sectors,” NRECA CEO Jim Matheson told reporters Thursday at a media teleconference. “Is our electric infrastructure ready for that?”

To build or upgrade generation, transmission and distribution systems, co-ops must seek permits from federal agencies under the National Environmental Policy Act. But those approvals can take years to obtain and are often further delayed when groups sue the agencies that issue the permits, Matheson said.

“Everyone, even organizations that don’t always agree on a lot, recognizes the need for a more timely and predictable process in this transition to a much more electrified economy,” he said.

Matt Hanson, CEO of 4,600-member McKenzie Electric Cooperative in Watford City, North Dakota, said his co-op has had trouble bringing electricity to tribal members on the Fort Berthold Reservation because of lengthy delays getting permits from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“It prevents economic development on the reservation,” he said. “And it impacts the environment. Our consumers there are running their power off generators until we can connect them to lines. It costs 30% to 50% more to connect homes on BIA-governed land.”

Brent Ridge, president and CEO of Dairyland Power Cooperative in Wisconsin, said the delays in federal permitting are making it tougher for the large generation and transmission co-op to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as quickly as it would like. The co-op’s goal is to use 40% renewable power by 2035.

Two separate energy projects—one to deliver wind power and another to build a natural-gas plant that would reduce the use of coal—have been stalled by litigation and other permitting delays, Ridge said.

“If we are to lower carbon emissions as quickly as possible, we need a process that is efficient and nimble,” he said. “The current process is delaying progress and raising costs.”

Ridge, Hanson and Matheson all urged Congress to support the BUILDER Act. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., would limit how long various environmental reviews must take, encourage greater involvement by co-ops and other permit applicants in the process and create deadlines for filing lawsuits after permits have been granted.

Matheson said he thought it was encouraging that the House Natural Resources Committee was focusing on the legislation at a Feb. 28 hearing, which includes testimony from Dairyland Power Vice President of Strategic Growth John Carr.

“I think the bill is a good first step,” he said. “I hope there’s a full-fledged bipartisan discussion in Congress. NRECA would certainly support that. We hope to build some momentum going forward.”

Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.