US Grapples With Tangled Permitting Process

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The US has set ambitious targets for rolling out domestic renewable energy projects and is prioritizing land access to reach those goals — but this is running into the country's complex web of permitting procedures, with market obstacles adding even more layers of complication. Even before the Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) massive infusion of clean energy spending last year, Congress set a goal of producing 25 gigawatts of solar, wind and geothermal energy on public lands by 2025. Separately, Biden’s Interior Department is targeting 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030 and 15 GW of floating wind by 2035. With those objectives in mind, the administration is actively trying to shift its access policies to make federal lands and offshore more welcoming for solar and wind projects — and consequently more unappealing to oil and gas — but faces significant hurdles in doing so.

Offshore, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a part of the Interior Department, has more than 18,000 megawatts of planned capacity in the queue awaiting federal approvals, all of it concentrated along the East Coast, 932 MW currently under construction with the Vineyard Wind and South Fork projects and 42 MW in operation, according to Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis. “Reaching 30 GW by 2030 will prove challenging; policymakers’ and industry’s ability to weather emerging headwinds will be critical for market growth,” the analysis says. The Interior Department had reported ramping up renewable energy permitting by at least 35% in fiscal year 2021 compared to the year prior and has authorized at least 18 projects on public lands as of last January, the most recent data available.

Challenges facing projects range from the complex web of state, federal and regional permitting to the uncertainties of US transmission planning, which are only compounded by market hurdles, including supply chain shortages and delays. “There is still generally a need for state and/or local approvals” for coastal landing facilities, said Romany Webb, deputy director at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia University Law School. Local opposition to construction of those facilities could become a bigger issue in the future, Webb added.

On the solar front, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), another Interior Department agency, is in the process of preparing a comprehensive environmental review for solar energy development on public lands in the western US. “The idea is to front-load the environmental review so that, when BLM gets to permitting individual projects, it can review them more quickly,” Webb said. The strategy could also streamline the approval process by funneling projects to areas where they present fewer environmental impacts and challenges.

But the Interior Department's efforts may be somewhat hindered by language in the IRA law that ties federal approvals of wind and solar projects to oil and gas leasing. The IRA mandates that the Interior Department may not issue a lease for offshore wind development unless it has held an oil and gas lease sale within the previous year and offered at least 60 million acres. For onshore, the language is more prescriptive: the administration may not issue a right-of-way for wind or solar projects — a key approval — unless it has offered at least 2 million acres for oil and gas leases in the previous year and 50% of that offering aligns with oil companies’ expressions of interest. There are more prescriptive curbs for onshore: for example, BLM must have held an oil lease sale within a three-month window of signing off on the right-of-way — something that could potentially prove more onerous than the baseline acreage volumes. The Interior Department is yet to clarify how it plans to implement the leasing directives.

Transmission marks another hurdle: the US is badly in need of expansions to infrastructure in order to connect new clean energy to the grid. But buildout often gets ensnarled in complicated state and federal jurisdictional issues, and though the IRA provided $760 million for state governments to support new interstate transmission line approvals, the obstacles remain. Transmission has become an increasing priority among Democrats in Congress, but legislation on this front has been stalled since last year.

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