We analyzed the President Obama’s recent Memorandum aimed at modernizing and expanding the nation’s electric transmission grid on federal lands.[1] The memorandum, which also garnered a mention in the President’s newly announced Climate Action Plan, is another tool being used by President Obama to move the country towards the President’s goal of doubling domestic renewable electricity by 2020. 

The memorandum builds on President Obama’s creation of a “Rapid Response Team for Transmission” (RRTT) in 2009—an interagency effort to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of transmission siting, permitting, and review[2]—and Executive Order 13604 in 2012, which required improvements in federal permitting and review of infrastructure projects generally and established a Steering Committee to oversee the review process.

The memorandum calls for a variety of actions to be taken by federal agencies over the next 18 months, including to review and likely designate additional energy corridors that “can help expedite the siting, permitting, and review processes for projects within such corridors, as well as improve the predictability and transparency of these processes.”[3]  Recognizing that linear transmission facilities typically cross multiple governmental jurisdictions, the memorandum sets up a framework for close collaboration of permitting agencies, including directing the development of an integrated, interagency pre-application process for projects requiring federal approvals.[4]

Using a “carrot” approach to encourage the use of designated energy corridors, the memorandum also provides for the development of a process to expedite applications for projects sited primarily within designated energy corridors in the Western States and that have committed to implement interagency landscape and/or regional mitigation plans required by the memorandum.[5]  The memorandum also directs federal agencies to expedite siting, permitting, and review of electric transmission projects on federal lands in the non-Western states.[6]  Critically, the end goals of the effort are to reduce the overall regulatory burden, while improving environmental and cultural outcomes through the identification of energy corridors in areas that minimize conflicts.

Key additional specific directives in the memorandum include:

  • The Secretary of Energy must synthesize current research on the state of the transmission grid and renewable energy assessments and issue a Transmission Corridor Assessment Report by December 1, 2013 for the Western states (defined to include Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming) and by April 1, 2014 for the rest of the country.[7]  The report is to focus on facilitating renewable energy resources and improving grid resiliency, and must also take into consideration distributed generation, improved energy efficiency and demand response.[8]
  • To encourage the use of energy corridors in Western states, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and the Interior must issue a Western Corridor study plan by July 12, 2013, followed by the study itself assessing the utility of the existing corridors within a year, as well as regional corridor assessments evaluating the need for any additions, deletions and revisions to existing corridors also within a year (e.g., both by July 2014).  Additionally, the Secretaries must produce an implementation plan for the corridors by November 12, 2014, and undertake coordinated land use planning and environmental and cultural resource review shortly thereafter for new or revised corridor designations.[9]    
  • By September 1, 2014, the Secretaries will also produce an analysis of potential energy corridors in the non-Western states.[10]

The June 7, 2013 memorandum reflects another push by the Obama Administration to encourage and expedite the development of energy projects on federal land, as well as to provide transmission grid resiliency, improve electric reliability, relieve congestion, and enhance the capability of the national grid to deliver electricity.  By encouraging the agencies involved in permitting to coordinate their review processes, the memorandum dovetails with other recent moves by the Obama administration to expedite environmental review, including the Council on Environmental Quality’s handbooks on joint NEPA/NHPA and NEPA/CEQA review, outlined in an earlier blog entry.  Overall, the memorandum indicates that in the future proponents of renewable energy and transmission projects should see a more streamlined and less time consuming permitting and approval process.