Opinions

Revising NEPA: The Pathway to a Renewable Future

William Sampson ‘24

Guest Contributor 

If America is serious about protecting its climate, it must cut the red tape preventing the use of renewable energy projects. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulates these sorts of projects, and requires the federal government to consider environmental impacts during any major federal action.

President Biden recently announced a multi-trillion dollar investment in renewable infrastructure. He has the opportunity to pair this funding with a new regulatory scheme to unleash renewable energy and robust infrastructure in America. A streamlined NEPA will foster an economy with a lower carbon footprint and create jobs. 

While many might associate removing regulations with environmental harm,  NEPA is short-sighted when it comes to the gravity of climate change. Under the guise of meticulously considering indirect impacts, the system is inhibiting America from reducing its carbon footprint. Scientists and developers must finally be able to put their renewable innovations to full use, at scale, and on time – sustainable projects must replace outdated, wasteful systems that harm our environment. 

As one of our greatest assets in preventing climate change, many renewable energy projects should be exempt from lengthy environmental analyses. Currently, projects that are intended to prevent climate change must have their climate impacts exhaustively considered. While these projects remain sidelined, America continues to emit millions of tons of carbon.

Image courtesy of ERO Resources

NEPA already has a feature called Categorical Exclusions (CX), which apply to federal permits or actions that do not significantly impact the environment. Federal actions in this class are implemented with minimal bureaucratic considerations. It is important to consider and mitigate the direct impacts of a new wind farm, for instance, on the local environment. But drowning projects in excessive considerations of indirect impacts only prevents Americans from building renewable infrastructure. 

America needs to look at the bigger picture. While nuclear or geothermal projects, for instance, need more lengthy reviews because the risks are higher, projects such as wind and solar must garner CXs much more often. The Biden Administration can implement this change immediately.

America suffers from an inability to permit infrastructure along a consistent timeline. It usually takes five to ten years to permit wind and solar projects on federal lands. The average six-year delay in beginning construction for public projects costs the U.S. more than $3.7 trillion over that span. These costs include inefficiencies and pollution, which damage the economy and the environment. 

All Americans can agree that decrepit power grids, highway traffic, and faulty transmission lines are bad for everyone. America’s obsolete power grid annually wastes the same amount of energy as 200 coal-burning power plants, yet America doesn’t improve the system. Transportation accounts for more than a third of GHG emissions in the U.S., and traffic congestion drastically increases those impacts. Despite this information, the Federal Highway Administration takes over six years to approve the average major highway project.

The 2020 NEPA Rule contained many popular, bipartisan features that the Biden Administration should expand to permit renewables faster. The One Federal Decision (OFD) policy, for instance, creates a unified committee and schedule for multiple agencies and stakeholders in order to establish clear deadlines and expectations for major infrastructure projects. When paired with the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, a transparent dashboard for project updates and timelines, OFD became a formidable force for completing permits quickly. 

Similarly, the 2020 NEPA Rule allows agencies to exercise their own discretion over timelines and document organization. Instead of being bogged down in environmental documents that can exceed fifteen thousand pages, agencies may now defer detailed analyses of specific programs. This is called “tiering,” and it saves agencies countless hours as they evaluate potential environmental impacts. By building upon these common-sense reforms, the Biden Administration can ensure a NEPA process with clear timelines and points of accountability. 

To enact these goals, President Biden should sign a new executive order. He must order the White House Council on Environmental Quality to draft a new NEPA Rule, to explore additional CXs for renewable projects. Agencies themselves should administer new guidance for streamlined, programmatic analyses. Finally, the directive must provide additional funding and support for the OFD policy and team, along with the permitting dashboard. Environmental reforms are often controversial, but with a refined, bipartisan framework, the environment and the economy can both benefit. 

William Sampson is a member of the American Conservation Coalition, former White House Council on Environmental Quality Intern, and college freshman studying political science and environmental science at the College of the Holy Cross.

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