NRECA CEO Jim Matheson: Congress Must Streamline Federal Permitting Process

NRECA CEO Jim Matheson sent a letter urging Congress to modernize the federal permitting process to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., (left) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. (Photo By: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Congress must modernize the federal permitting process to allow electric cooperatives to build new transmission and generation capacity more quickly and cost-effectively to meet growing demand for electricity, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said in a letter to Senate leaders.

The Senate is working on crafting legislation to address permitting reform, and Matheson’s letter is the latest effort by NRECA to push for improvements that will benefit co-ops and their consumer-members.

“On behalf of America’s Electric Cooperatives, thank you for your efforts to streamline the federal infrastructure permitting process,” Matheson wrote in a May 8 letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“As we strive to meet our consumer-members’ expectations in the coming years, while maintaining reliable and affordable electric service, electric cooperatives will need to build significant amounts of new electric transmission and generation capacity of all types.”

Many of those projects will require permits and environmental reviews from federal, state and local governments, he said. Major projects will need to complete an environmental impact statement under the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Unfortunately, as just one indicator of the headwinds we currently face, it takes an average of 4.5 years to complete an EIS and issue a permitting decision,” Matheson said. “One quarter of EISs take more than 6 years.”

He urged senators to consider five key principles as they conduct hearings and draft legislation to improve the permitting process:

• Time limits of no more than two years for environmental reviews. “That should be enough time to conduct a rigorous review while providing project certainty.”

• Greater applicant involvement in the process. Member-owned co-ops “know the specific details of their projects and the unique needs and challenges facing their communities.”

• More efficient reviews for recurring small projects—such as trimming trees to prevent power outages and wildfires—that are known to have minimal environmental impacts. “Electric co-ops should not have to navigate a lengthy, bureaucratic process for actions where both co-ops and the agency already know the benefits are high and the impacts are low.”

• Limit lengthy, costly litigation that can delay projects indefinitely. “Litigation can result in excessive paperwork and unnecessary delays—holding up projects that communities badly need.”

• Ensure that transmission permitting and siting improvements reflect co-op and community needs. “The electric grid needs more electric grid transmission capacity to meet expected growth in the coming decades.”

Matheson said policies to spur additional capacity must not expand the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s authority over electric co-ops. He added that those policies must allocate the costs only to those who receive tangible and quantifiable benefits and “must ultimately serve the national interest of maintaining the reliability and affordability of the electric grid.”

Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.