Concluding that “[m]odernizing our Nation’s electric transmission grid requires improvements in how transmission lines are sited, permitted, and reviewed,” President Obama on June 7, 2013, released a Memorandum directing changes to the process for constructing transmission projects on federal lands. The Memorandum, titled Transforming our Nation’s Electric Grid Through Improved Siting, Permitting, and Review, focuses on federal policies related to energy right-of-way corridors and the application processes across agencies for new projects.
First, the Memorandum directs the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and the Interior (Secretaries) to collaborate with each other and the Steering Committee on Federal Infrastructure Permitting and Review Process Improvement (Steering Committee) to improve the use of “energy right-of-way corridors” for electric transmission projects. Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the secretaries designated energy corridors on federal lands to promote the development of energy resources, including transmission facilities. These corridors are incorporated into relevant federal agencies’ land use and resource management plans. Because the process for establishing energy corridors involves a review of environmental, cultural and local community impacts, the subsequent approval process for specific energy projects within designated corridors is likely to be streamlined.
The Memorandum sets forth a series of deadlines for agencies to develop a plan for encouraging the use of energy corridors for transmission projects. In developing a plan, the agencies are required to consider how to fulfill a number of policy objectives, including facilitating the development of renewable energy resources, improving grid resiliency, avoiding conflicts with other resource uses, minimizing dispersed or conflicting rights of way, minimizing environmental and cultural impacts, and improving mitigation plans to include clear, measurable goals. The secretary of Energy will release a report summarizing the secretaries’ policy recommendations by December 1, 2013 (for energy corridors in Western states) and April 1, 2014 (for non-Western states). These recommendations will be incorporated into corridor studies and regional corridor assessments to be completed in July 2014 (Western states) and September 2014 (non-Western states).
“Energy right-of-way corridors” under EPAct 2005 are not equivalent to “national interest electric transmission corridors” (NIETCs), which were created under the same statute. Proposed transmission projects within NIETCs may be eligible for siting approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), rather than the relevant state or local jurisdictions, under certain conditions.
Second, by September 30, 2013, the Member Agencies of the Steering Committee, which include the Council on Environmental Quality; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; and the departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, Energy, Homeland Security and Army must provide to the Chief Performance Officer and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality a unified plan, including timelines and milestones, for implementing an interagency pre-application process for significant transmission projects that require federal approval.
FERC is not specifically required to undertake any actions in furtherance of the Memorandum; however, the secretaries and Member Agencies are required to consult with FERC in carrying out their responsibilities. The agencies also are required to consult with states, tribes, local units of government, and other stakeholders to develop the required processes for improving the use of energy corridors and pre-application reviews to facilitate development of transmission infrastructure on federal lands.