Empowering Communities while Streamlining Clean Infrastructure Permitting
Accelerating our permitting process for clean energy and other infrastructure projects is critical to lowering emissions, reducing energy costs, increasing energy reliability, and enhancing both our energy and supply chain security. At the same time, robust public engagement with local communities is crucial to ensure transparency and provide timely, comprehensive, and understandable information to those who are potentially impacted. An effective process will help to foster a trusted environment that in turn enhances the opportunity to develop “buy-in” and even potential partnerships. A fulsome and transparent community process will also result in better final project planning and reduce potential opposition
In April 2023, the Bipartisan Policy Center convened a private workshop that brought together experts from across the political spectrum to explore the pros and cons of specific reforms to improve public engagement and increase the efficiency of the permitting process. The goal of the workshop was not to identify a set of consensus recommendations. Rather, it was to solicit feedback on a menu of policy options. There was one point of consensus: community engagement reforms must be included in any politically viable legislative permitting reform package.
The workshop explored a set of specific policy options that were considered by participants, with a significant amount of the discussion focused on third-party involvement.
Option 1: Establish and fund non-biased third parties to perform community education and engagement on energy technologies (not projects)
Because the onus for community engagement activities currently falls on project sponsors, it is natural for local communities to have at least some level of apprehension, even distrust, with developers who have a profit motive associated with the project. Workshop participants discussed having a third-party entity perform community engagement on technology types, rather than specific projects, to educate the community on the specifics of the technology, infrastructure needs, science, likely generic local impacts, and safety considerations. Funding a non-biased third-party with technology expertise to perform upfront community engagement and technical education could unlock early project efficiency gains. Utilizing an organization with repeated experience and expertise in the technology and process should give local communities a trusted resource and partner while serving to reduce delays associated with the permitting process. Participants noted that information sharing could be reciprocal, with the third-party gaining knowledge on community concerns so they can be addressed in project planning and environmental reviews.
Participants discussed whether the use of a third-party should be optional or mandatory. A mandatory approach would create a new baseline for community engagement but would, unfortunately, add to the already cumbersome permitting process. For that reason, most participants preferred not requiring this step for specific projects, but rather developing the capacity to provide this service for large projects where it may be more useful.
Some participants argued that the third-party approach may help educate communities, but would not solve the issue of disadvantaged stakeholders having neither the time or resources to engage in the process. This was acknowledged and BPC moderators reiterated that these policy options are not mutually exclusive—no single option discussed would solve each and every problem, and that some combination of these options could be included in final legislation—with the ultimate goal being an early, comprehensive and trusted community engagement and education process that would lead to reduced delays for worthy projects.
Participants identified two major policy design choices that would impact the effectiveness of the policy:
Who is the third party?
There are numerous options for who the third party is, each bringing their own advantages and disadvantages. Participants identified that the third party must be trusted by the community, as well as the developers, to be neutral experts not advancing any ideological or profit-driven perspective. Participants also noted that this may require using different entities in different parts of the country depending on which local or regional entity can maintain that position of trust. Participants generally agreed that the third party would be less trustworthy if it were politically appointed. If the third party has a government affiliation, the steps would be needed to ensure confidence with both the community and project sponsor that the entity is without political or technology bias.
The following entities were proposed as possibly filling the third-party role:
USDA Cooperative Extension System
Practitioners and academics at University of Michigan, Purdue University and Apex Clean Energy have been exploring the role of cooperative extensions and the opportunities and challenges that accompany it.
- Pros: The Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension System (CES) is a nationwide network, with an office in nearly all 3,000 U.S. counties, of educators and researchers that aims to provide mostly rural communities and farmers with practical, research-based information on best practices and has experience facilitating community engagement.
- Cons: CES is already resource constrained and is not currently equipped to take on such a large role in the permitting process. Additionally, permitting is not just a rural issue, and the program may need to become better equipped to work with urban and suburban communities.
DOE Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation
- Pros: The recently established Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (FESI) is a private non-profit organization designed to involve the private sector in DOE’s effort of commercializing and deploying energy technologies. FESI’s unique structure with an insulated board of directors and the ability to mix philanthropic donations with public funding makes them well suited for a third-party role.
- Cons: FESI is not a well-established institution with roots in communities across the country, making it difficult to establish trust or build administrative capacity. FESI might be better equipped for a high-level role in aggregating funding and providing technology specific expertise that can be matched and disbursed to other third-party entities performing community engagement.
Community Colleges or Universities
- Pros: Community colleges and universities are spread across the country in diverse regions and would be well equipped to play an educational role when it comes to describing the benefits, impacts, and needs of specific energy technologies. Additionally, universities sometimes house federal entities, such as the EPA Environmental Finance Centers, which may prove a valuable resource and increase coordination between the universities and federal agencies.
- Cons: Community colleges and universities often have little to no experience with community engagement and may not have the expertise to discuss site-specific or regulatory issues. If the university does house a federal entity, it will also need to ensure that it maintains trust as a non-biased third party.
The Permitting Council
- Pros: Permanently reauthorized as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Permitting Council is an existing government agency with expertise both in the permitting process and in interacting with all of the other federal agencies that are involved in environmental reviews.
- Cons: Their current expertise is in permitting and intergovernmental coordination, not community engagement or education on technologies.
It is worth noting that each of these ideas above can be combined into one model where FESI and/or the Permitting Council pools resources, best practices, and educational materials which they then distribute in a partnership model to more local entities such as the CES or local academic institutions who act as the face of public engagement.
How is the third-party funded?
A key policy design and concern of the third-party model is how the entity will be funded. Participants quickly pointed out that this model could be very expensive. Proposals on how to fund the entity are sorted into four buckets: project developers, trade associations, philanthropy, and the government.
- Developers benefit from third-party engagement as it can lead to more informed communities regarding their technology or project and help to minimize public opposition. It could therefore make sense for developers to contribute funding to this public education and engagement effort, which would save them time and resources in the long run. One concern with this approach is maintaining the level of trust between the local community and third party and avoiding the appearance or actual conflicts of interest.
- Trade associations could pool funding to support community engagement on specific technology types. Trade associations’ members would benefit from more community education on their specific technology. Spreading the funding across members also keeps funding for community engagement one more step removed from individual projects.
- Particularly if FESI is involved, philanthropic dollars could be leveraged to supplement other funding sources. There are many philanthropies focusing both on deploying clean energy technologies and on community engagement and environmental justice that may be interested in supporting this effort.
- Agencies already have funding for environmental review and community engagement, which could be utilized here or leveraged through FESI. Participants noted that current funding levels are not enough to take on this new task and also implement an efficient permitting system. They also noted that the Permitting Council’s Environmental Review Improvement Fund is an already existing source of potential funding for project developers to contribute to permitting expenses.
While there was no true consensus surrounding Option 1, an overwhelming majority of participants recognized the value and supported the concept assuming implementation details were designed well.
Option 2: Establish a monitoring committee for individual projects comprised of local stakeholders that ensures standards are met and provides an avenue for continued public engagement for the life of the project.
This recommendation is based off Quebec’s community engagement model used for mining projects. The recommendation drew strong support from some participants who view it as a solution that places community members at the center of project development and delivery, and skepticism from other participants who thought the scale would be too resource intensive and the authority of committees would need to be carefully defined to ensure the committees do not become an additional de facto approver/negotiator of projects. Participants also noted that the monitoring committees could interact as community representatives with the third-party in the recommendation above.
Participants supporting the recommendation highlighted that establishing a monitoring committee comprised of local stakeholders would provide a means for continued public engagement throughout the life of a project, which may reassure communities that standards will be adhered to years down the line. Committees could also help filter more legitimate community concerns from less legitimate, sometimes aesthetic concerns. By filtering and communicating concerns to agencies, the committees would be a valuable resource to agencies to identify and address the most pressing concerns.
Participants skeptical of the idea noted the sheer scale of the recommendation. Providing the committees with resources and their members with compensation could prove expensive. Participants also highlighted the importance of getting the committees’ authority right. There was general consensus that the committees should not have jurisdiction to approve or deny projects—or even the perceived authority to do so—which could add an extra veto point. Instead, the committee should act as a forum for aggregating and communicating community concerns to agencies.
How is committee participation decided?
There was consensus that the committee should consist of local stakeholders and not be decided by the federal government, but participants proposed different options for how to choose members.
Decided by local government
- The local government might be well informed on which community members are most knowledgeable of the technology or specific site location. This design also allows voters to have some oversight on the process by keeping local government representatives accountable.
Jury duty model
- Another proposal would use the jury duty model where members of the community are selected at random and compensated for their participation. This design would help mitigate the concern that these types of committees only represent individuals who have the time and resources to engage and ensure a more representative sample of the local population is involved.
Option 3: Require or incentivize agencies to engage stakeholders before developing a public notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.
In its 2021 report, BPC’s Smarter, Cleaner, Faster Task Force recommended that Congress should codify the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 2020 regulations’ expansion of scoping and directing all agencies to prioritize early engagement and consensus building. Specifically, NEPA 2020 regulations would require agencies to engage stakeholders before developing a public notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and to include specific information for, and to solicit information from, the public regarding proposed actions. Codifying this regulation could facilitate early public buy-in with the public and other stakeholders.
Participants agreed with the potential benefits of early engagement, noting that it helps developers, as well as communities, when residents provide feedback on a project at an earlier stage in development. Early engagement may also reduce the risk of litigation by community members that feel their concerns were not addressed through the standard process.
However, some voiced concern that this may also open up a new avenue for litigation if agencies do not conduct early engagement, which could slow projects down and disincentivize development. Therefore, participants questioned whether early engagement should be a requirement or whether there should be incentives to encourage early engagement. For example, one participant suggested that there could be a federal incentive to fast-track permitting for projects with early engagement.
Option 4: Conduct and provide resources for extensive community information hearings that address public comments and concerns of the community.
In Québec, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) serves as an independent government entity providing citizens with a platform to publicly express their views on proposed infrastructure and energy projects. BAPE posts information online and hosts hearings with community members, sharing their findings with the Québec government. The U.S. could facilitate a similar process by providing resources for such community information hearings.
Some participants supported the idea of better equipping impacted communities to represent themselves, as opposed to having other entities represent impacted communities. For example, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada provides funding to reduce financial barriers for members of the public to participate in the assessment process. Participants noted that this model could allow communities to hire representatives and experts they trust in order to feel that their interests are protected diligently. Other participants felt that hearings are less important, but providing resources for participation, such as technical assistance, would be more effective.
Option 5: Establish a clearinghouse for information on environmental justice, best practices, and opportunities for community engagement.
The Environmental Justice for All Act, introduced in the 117th Congress, included a measure to establish a web-based Environmental Justice (EJ) Clearinghouse, including:
- Information describing the EPA’s efforts to advance EJ
- Providing EPA training materials to help individuals and employees carry out EJ activities
- Links to web pages that describe EJ activities of other Federal agencies
- A directory of individuals who possess technical expertise in issues relating to EJ
- A directory of nonprofit and community-based organizations that address EJ issues
While participants noted that a hub of standards and best practices could be a useful tool, some expressed a concern that any guidance provided in the Clearinghouse would become de facto standards for other agencies to promote with little oversight and create increased litigation risk. Other participants noted that CEQ already provides resources and guidance on EJ activities, and thus there could be significant redundance in creating a new platform.
Option 6: Establish commissions to advise agencies on the design, implementation, and evaluation of public participation processes
Commissions to advise agencies on public participation processes can provide a structured approach to developing and implementing effective public participation policies. These commissions can help agencies identify best practices, evaluate the effectiveness of their existing policies, and develop new strategies for engaging the public in decision-making processes.
However, workshop participants showed a general consensus of disapproval for this recommendation. Participants argued that commissions would add another layer of bureaucracy without addressing the contention between communities and developers. As with the previous option, participants noted that the “best practices” established by the commission may become de facto standards with little oversight and that these commissions may be redundant of CEQ’s role in the process.
Remaining options that were not discussed in-depth
The options listed below were also part of the conversation, but time constraints prevented a more detailed discussion on their pros and cons.
- Establish an accessible online central hub for information on individual projects, public comments, and information about community hearings.
- Develop simple, intuitive agency formats for public involvement in project permitting, public hearings, and notice and comment stages.
- For projects involving multiple states, provide incentives and resources for coordinating community engagement.
- Incentivize developers to submit community benefit plans, where developers outline how they plan to serve communities through jobs and other economic benefits.
While this roundtable was not designed to forge consensus, it did highlight the significant areas of bipartisan interest and the need for more creative problem solving. There was broad agreement that early and trusted community engagement is an effective tool in reducing permitting delays. The third-party and monitoring committee options specifically garnered significant interest and debate over program design decisions. Additionally, requiring or incentivizing agencies to conduct stakeholder engagement efforts prior to the EIS also received general support by participants.
This workshop was the first of a series that BPC will be convening over the coming months to facilitate across the aisle conversations on specific permitting reform considerations, including technology specific needs, administrative bureaucracy, and judicial review. Each workshop will be followed by a similar takeaways document highlighting areas with bipartisan interest that can be built upon.
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