To substantially reduce carbon emissions and meet national climate goals over the next decade, the United States must accelerate investment in cleaner and greener infrastructure. To that end, project delivery, particularly the process for assessing environmental impacts and acquiring required permits and approvals, must become more efficient and timelier than it has been in the past.
BPC previously outlined how permitting risk—the risk of project delays in the permitting and environmental review process—has been a significant disincentive to private investment in emissions-reducing public infrastructure. In recent years, finding ways to fast-track federal permitting and environmental reviews, while upholding longstanding environmental protections, has been a key bipartisan objective.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act not only provides significant new resources to modernize the nation’s critical infrastructure systems, the following provisions will improve the environmental review and permitting process and help reduce timelines for the delivery of clean infrastructure projects.
Permanently authorizes and enhances the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council: The bill lifts the sunset on FAST-41, which established the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC), bringing together agencies at the start of the permitting and review process to establish timely, coordinated agency plans. FAST-41 also created a Permitting Dashboard, which allows the public to review project schedules, descriptions, and other valuable details. Early evidence from the council suggests that these provisions significantly reduced review and permitting timelines. Importantly, this transparency also allows the public to hold project sponsors and agencies accountable. Consistent with BPC recommendations, IIJA expands the number of projects eligible for the FPISC process, for example, to include tribal infrastructure projects.
Codifies “One Federal Decision:” The Trump administration’s Executive Order 13807 adopted “One Federal Decision,” requiring a single lead agency to bear responsibility for shepherding projects through multiagency reviews and keeping agencies to timetables of two years or less to complete the NEPA reviews of major infrastructure projects. IIJA codifies One Federal Decision while limiting most environmental impact statements for major projects to 200 pages.
Creates the Interagency Infrastructure Permitting Improvement Center: The IPIC, housed within DOT, is tasked with eliminating barriers to efficient and effective permitting and environmental review, as well as developing metrics to implement project delivery reforms. IPIC will also collaborate with FPISC on permitting reform efforts, help DOT’s Build America Bureau navigate environmental review and permitting issues, and serve as DOT’s liaison to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Expedites evaluations for projects within operational rights-of-way: For preventative maintenance, preservation, or highway safety projects in an “operational right-of-way,” federal agencies are required to provide a preliminary review of applications within 45 days of project submission. Agencies failing to meet the deadline are subject to reporting requirements describing why the deadline was missed.
Expands the use of categorical exclusions: Categorical exclusions (CEs) apply to projects that, by their nature, do not have a significant environmental impact and therefore do not require more stringent environmental reviews, namely an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Previously, DOT adopted CEs for “small” projects that receive less than $5 million in federal dollars, or “large” projects with total cost estimates under $30 million and federal funds supporting less than 15% of the cost. IIJA increases the threshold for small projects to $6 million and the threshold for large projects to $35 million. IIJA also requires DOT to identify CEs the agency uses that could be useful for other federal agencies.
Enhances FERC’s authority for electric transmission permitting: In 2005, the Energy Policy Act gave FERC the power to approve interstate transmission projects in “national interest” corridors, but the authority has eroded due to court rulings. IIJA clarifies and restores this authority, empowering FERC to more efficiently greenlight important transmission projects that advance regional and national transmission goals. IIJA also expands the definition of “national interest” corridors to include projects that improve energy security, connect facilities generating or transmitting firm or intermittent energy to the grid, and lower consumer electricity costs.
Speeds up permitting for critical minerals: Critical minerals—including rare earth elements, lithium, and cobalt—are crucial for developing modern technologies such as solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, and computers. IIJA includes provisions to speed up the slow pace of permitting for critical minerals, directing relevant agencies to establish improved timelines and report to Congress on their progress. IIJA also creates the Critical Minerals Interagency Subcommittee to evaluate sticking points that slow down the permitting process for critical minerals.
While these permitting provisions are an important start, more work is needed to ensure the decarbonizing investments in the bipartisan infrastructure bill are delivered efficiently and impactfully. The administration can save time and money, attract private capital, and advance its climate objectives by:
- Judiciously aligning these new procedures with previous permitting initiatives, guidance, and regulatory rulemakings so that project sponsors have certainty of process and understand where to turn for coordinated federal reviews and permits
- Prioritizing full transparency with the public
- Providing the necessary training, support, and resources to agency staff to ensure new procedures are successfully implemented
- Ensuring, in all actions, that opportunities for public engagement are not jeopardized or overlooked.
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