Accelerated Transmission Line Approvals For Priority Projects

Accelerated Transmission Line Approvals For Priority Projects

May 29, 2024 | By Scott Burton in Los Angeles and Washington, DC and Tim Carlstedt in San Francisco

Companies developing new transmission line projects can now call on the US Department of Energy (DOE) to help accelerate government approvals for such projects by tapping into a three-step process.

However, expedited treatment is available only for new electric transmission projects that the DOE prioritizes as qualifying projects.

The United States installed 4,000 miles of new transmission lines annually as recently as 2014, but struggled last year to install even 1,000 miles. New interstate transmission lines take an average of more than four years and sometimes up to 11 years to receive all the necessary permits before construction can commence.

The DOE said it will try to coordinate reviews of proposed new transmission lines by federal, state and local and tribal government agencies to cut the environmental review and approval time for such projects to two years.

Red Tape

Transmission lines seeking federal financial support or that cross state lines or federal land or waters require authorization by multiple federal government agencies, in addition to any necessary reviews by local, state and tribal authorities.

One of the most time-consuming parts of the review process is a required environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act. Completion of impact statements takes more than four years on average, with a quarter of federal agency NEPA reviews taking six years or more to complete.

Moreover, these timelines do not include additional time required to prepare applications for agency review, often adding several more years to the full NEPA process.

There is a tangle of other federal statutes to navigate during the NEPA assessment, including the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and National Historic Preservation Act. The project also may require title V right-of-way authorizations under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act from the Bureau of Land Management or special use permits from the US Forest Service, Clean Water Act section 404 and Rivers and Harbors Act section 10 authorizations from the US Army Corps of Engineers, and US Environmental Protection Agency consultation.

Federal land management agencies also may require a plan of development and may require studying the effects on existing land uses and a BLM resource management plan amendment.

Expedited NEPA Review

The new effort to speed approvals is called the "Coordinated Interagency Transmission Authorizations and Permits Program" or "CITAP" for short.

Transmission line developers submit an "integrated interagency preapplication" called an "IIP."

After receiving an IIP, the Department of Energy will work with the developer to prepare an agency review schedule. The schedule developed by DOE will include a binding timeline for the multi-agency environmental review process and target an expedited two-year NEPA approval.

DOE will serve as lead agency to shepherd the project through the federal environmental review and coordinate with tribal and state and local agencies. Once the reviews are complete, DOE will issue a single NEPA environmental impact statement for the project.

After DOE has reviewed the IIP and provided a timeline for review, DOE will issue a "notice of intent" to prepare an environmental impact statement. Developers must continue to work with DOE and other agencies consulted in the NEPA review process to support preparation of the environmental impact statement. At the end of the process, a final "record of decision" is issued documenting project approvals and any measures required to mitigate environmental impacts.

Qualifying Projects

The expedited procedures apply only to “qualifying projects.” 

All transmission facilities seeking federal authorizations qualify in theory. However, DOE will prioritize projects it determines are likely to benefit most from expedited review.

DOE regulations prioritize onshore high-voltage or regionally or nationally significant transmission projects used for interstate or international electricity transmission.

Transmission lines serving offshore wind projects are not covered. Neither are intrastate transmission lines wholly within Texas (ERCOT) and interstate transmission projects sited in a nationally significant transmission corridor that are seeking construction or modification permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Projects that do not qualify for priority treatment under CITAP can seek a determination of qualifying-project status from DOE on a case-by-case basis. For example, subject to concurrence by other affected federal agencies, DOE may allow a proposed offshore transmission project to receive coordination assistance provided it is a standalone transmission line that is not associated with an offshore wind project.

DOE may reconsider its approach to offshore wind transmission lines in a future rulemaking.

Larger Push

The expedited approval process is just one of several measures the Biden administration announced in recent weeks to expedite permitting for electric transmission projects. Among other steps, the Council on Environmental Quality adopted other NEPA reforms intended to streamline project approvals.

Other DOE proposals include designation of 10 high-priority transmission corridors for which DOE will try to expedite project development across the country and publication of proposed eligibility criteria for transmission facility financing program loans for projects sited in the high-priority transmission corridors.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission published a 1,363-page order in mid-May that will require utilities to plan for transmission grid upgrades by looking ahead to where transmission will be needed over the next 20 or more years, lists factors that must be considered in planning, and could lead to more regional sharing of costs of grid additions.