DOE provides details on interagency NOPR to aid project application process

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aims to improve the federal permitting process for transmission projects through the notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) on interagency coordination before project applications are filed, DOE officials said during a March 22 webinar on the NOPR.

The NOPR covers the Integrated Interagency Pre-Application (IIP) process for transmission facilities that involve federal agencies, Julie Smith, electricity policy analyst at DOE, said during the webinar. The NOPR, which was issued Feb. 2, followed earlier steps by the Obama administration to improve coordination among federal agencies and aid transmission project developers, Smith noted.

A memorandum of understanding among nine agencies in 2009 described agency responsibilities for transmission projects crossing federal land, and a 2013 presidential memorandum and subsequent request for information (RFI) sought to improve the process, Smith explained. What is drafted in the NOPR differs from the RFI, based on comments DOE received following the Aug. 29, 2013, RFI, she said.

Comments on the NOPR are due April 4, and “we’re looking forward to hearing what you have to say,” Smith told webinar participants. Following the public comment period, DOE will consider the comments and develop a final rule. The timing for a final rule is unknown at this point, depending on the level of comments received, she said.

Besides improving agency coordination before applications are submitted, the proposal should help ensure project developers submit accurate and complete applications to improve agency reviews, Smith said. The intent behind the IIP proposal is to aid information sharing and address any questions as part of the transmission planning process “rather than starting from scratch” once an application is filed, she said.

The goal, eventually, is “to improve the permitting time for transmission projects,” Lynn Alexander, environmental protection specialist at DOE, said during the webinar.

The IIP process would be voluntary, with transmission project developers choosing to utilize the measures through an “initiation request,” filed with DOE, Alexander said. That request would include a project description, maps, possible environmental impacts, cost issues and other details. Project developers should “have a fairly robust plan in place,” and not simply a conceptual proposal, before seeking to start the IIP process, she said.

The DOE officials noted that the proposed regulations would apply to qualifying projects that meet specifications at the discretion of DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. They would not apply to facilities located completely within ERCOT or to facilities in a DOE-designated National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor where a project proponent is seeking permits from FERC.

Qualifying projects are defined in the NOPR as non-marine, high-voltage transmission lines (230 kV or higher) and attendant facilities used in interstate commerce for sale at wholesale. In addition, all or part of the facilities have to cross jurisdictions administered by more than one federal entity, or cross jurisdictions administered by a federal entity and is considered for federal financial assistance from a federal entity, according to the webinar presentation.

The next step outlined in the NOPR would have DOE evaluate the “initiation request,” coordinate an initial meeting, inform all potentially affected agencies of the transmission plan and provide any submitted information to federal entities. Within 30 days of receiving the “initiation request,” DOE would notify the project proponent that the request meets the requirements laid out in the NOPR or that it does not meet the requirements and informs the project proponent how to address any deficiencies, according to the webinar presentation.

DOE would convene the initial meeting with the involved agencies and the project proponent no later than 45 days after notifying all parties that the “initiation request” meets the requirements, the presentation said.

At that initial meeting, which should take place in the region where a project would be located, agencies would provide feedback on any data gaps, environmental concerns or other issues, Alexander explained. DOE will make note of any issues and provide an initial meeting summary to the project developer, she noted.

A project proponent then would submit a close-out meeting request to DOE no less than 45 days after the initial meeting, and DOE would hold a close-out meeting within 90 days of receiving such a request.

DOE, in consultation with the federal entities involved, would coordinate the selection of a lead agency for preparing environmental review documents under the National Environmental Policy Act. That would take place within 45 days of receiving a close-out meeting request, Alexander said.

“We’ve tried to establish reasonable time frames to organize meetings” and share information, she said.

DOE would document any issues identified during the IIP process and provide information from the close-out meeting to the project proponent in a final IIP resources report, Alexander said.

All of the steps would take place before an application is submitted to a federal agency, so public outreach would not be required as part of the IIP process, the DOE officials said. However, they encouraged project developers to share information with the public early and often to try and smooth the transmission development process.

Once the IIP steps make it into a final rule, DOE intends to develop implementation tools or materials with federal entities and others, such as the Rapid Response Team for Transmission. Those tools may include checklists to assist project developers in putting together their information and guidance to help all parties understand the IIP process, Alexander said.

With federal agencies prominent in the West, she added that DOE may develop implementation tools that complement the Regulatory and Permitting Information Desktop (RAPID) toolkit that was developed by the Western Governors Association (WGA) to address transmission siting and permitting issues in the region.

The online RAPID toolkit was unveiled by WGA in 2014 to try and streamline the permitting process.