Fiddling as the World Floods and Burns: How Climate Change Urgently Requires a Paradigm Shift in the Permitting of Renewable Energy Projects

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The forty-four page 2011 White House Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future omits a critical component: the blueprint does not tackle the issue of streamlining regulatory and permitting processes and requirements for a secure supply of renewable energy. (227) This makes the blueprint largely irrelevant to the challenges of preparing renewable energy projects for investment risks, design, regulatory review, and construction within the time frames demanded by the climate change crisis. (228) Missing are concrete steps that would:

1) Prioritize and streamline the regulatory review of renewable energy projects by proclaiming in laws like NEPA and other major environmental statutes that quickly building significant numbers of such projects is of great strategic importance to the U.S.;

2) Establish clear, expedited timelines for agency review, consultation and coordination, as well as any judicial review of agency decisions;

3) Develop the expanded use of categorical exclusions under NEPA for offshore wind demonstration, testing, and small-scale projects; and

4) Require that the "hidden" costs of fossil-fueled energy be taken into account, along with the comparative life cycle impacts of competing energy sources, as part of NEPA's no-action alternative analysis and other regulatory reviews.

Steps to achieve these goals can be undertaken through a combination of federal legislation, (229) presidential executive orders, (230) new CEQ and other agency regulations, and MOUs. (231) Comparable steps have previously been taken for prioritizing fossil fuel energy. (232) Given the twenty first century exigencies of climate change, the playing field must not just be leveled for renewable clean energy projects, but tilted in their favor. I first focus on changes that will or may require congressional action, and then on changes that may be accomplished through other means.

A. Needed Legislative Action

The BOEM leasing and NEPA analysis processes take the most amount of time for any offshore wind project, and underscore the need for reform. The fundamental goals of the OCSLA and NEPA (drafted in 1953 and 1969, respectively) must be newly implemented in the carbon-stressed world of today. As NEPA section 101 notes: "it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government, in cooperation with State and local governments ... to use all practicable means and measures" to "improve and coordinate Federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may--1) fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations; [and] 2) assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings." (233) Likewise, Congress declared in the OCSLA that the "outer Continental Shelf ... should be made available for expeditious and orderly development, subject to environmental safeguards, in a manner consistent with the maintenance of competition and other national needs," (234) and that the Secretary of the Interior should develop a leasing program (then only for oil and gas) that "will best meet national energy needs for the five-year period following its approval or reapproval." (235)

In other words, given the well-documented public health, economic, national security, and environmental harms to the United States from carbon-fueled climate changes as summarized in Part HI, it is strategically imperative that all "practicable means" be utilized to expedite the carbonfree energy source development of the OCS by BOEM in order to help best meet national energy, health, safety, and intergenerational environmental needs. To do so first requires amending NEPA and the OCSLA to prioritize, streamline, and expedite project reviews of offshore wind project proposals.

There are a number of examples where Congress has taken steps to streamline NEPA and related statutes in proceedings related to energy and other matters. …