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New Memorandum of Understanding Promises Streamlined Electric Transmission Permitting on Federal Lands

Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., October 29, 2009

After decades of relatively low levels of investment, new electric transmission capacity has become a high national priority.  In a recent speech, President Obama promoted investment in a “clean energy superhighway” to support renewable energy development.  New transmission lines are necessary to bring new renewable energy to users, as well as to address increasingly severe grid congestion and unreliability.  Especially in the western United States, these new transmission lines will often cross federal lands and thus require federal approvals.  However, the large collection of regulatory agencies with a say in siting decisions has offered limited opportunity for cooperative and efficient planning and permitting, leading to expensive bureaucratic delays. 

A new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), announced on October 28, 2009, among the federal agencies involved in the siting and construction of electric transmission lines and infrastructure aims to streamline authorizations and increase the consistency and transparency of decisionmaking.  The participating agencies are the Council on Environmental Quality, the Departments of the Interior, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. 

The MOU follows on an earlier order by Interior Secretary Salazar creating an inter-departmental task force to prioritize the permitting of transmission rights of way, and supersedes a prior MOU adopted in 2006.  It establishes a protocol regarding the designation of a lead agency and single point of contact by the Department of Energy when multiple agencies are involved in approving a transmission project.  It also aims to facilitate coordination and unified environmental documentation among project applicants, agencies, states, and tribes, establishes clear timelines for review, and establishes a single consolidated environmental review and administrative record. 

Fred R. Wagner and Peter J. Schaumberg gave a presentation on this topic in September 2009 at the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation’s Special Institute on Energy Development: Access, Siting, Permitting, and Delivery on Public Lands.  The Institute was co-sponsored by the DOI Bureau of Land Management.  Their paper is available here.  For more information, please contact Fred at fwagner@bdlaw.com or (202) 789-6041, or Peter at pschaumberg@bdlaw.com or (202) 789-6043.  This alert was prepared with the assistance of Alexandra Wyatt. 

The MOU is available here, and a multi-agency press release announcing the MOU is available here.  President Obama’s October 27, 2009 speech on funding for smart grid technology and the need for a “clean energy superhighway” can be read here.   

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