April Abate-Adams: Permitting reform is the key to clean energy

Our country needs to speed up the pace at which we build clean energy projects.

It’s time to build America’s clean energy economy and future, and permitting reform is an essential piece of the puzzle.

In order to meet our climate targets and maintain energy independence, our country needs to speed up the pace at which we build clean energy projects. Our current permitting process makes that tough. More than 95% of new energy projects currently awaiting permits are solar, wind and battery storage, but on average it takes 4.5 years to obtain a permit. We need permitting reform to speed up our ability to build and connect new energy projects while protecting vulnerable communities.

As a former regulator that permitted mines in Utah, I am often asked why it takes so long to get a permit. My answer: For mining permits, it usually doesn’t. We were very good at explaining the process and managing expectations during the beginning stages. However, larger scale and more controversial projects take more time to permit. In many instances, the public and affected stakeholders only learn of the project after an agency issues a preliminary decision. If a commenter then brings up a substantive issue clearly showing that they will be impacted by the project, regulators are forced to go back and reevaluate the best way to mitigate the affected party’s concern. Requesting public comment and working through those issues at the beginning stages of the review period could streamline the process.

If the projects are on federal lands, coordination must take place between the various state and federal agencies to ensure they are all on the same page. Delays are often blamed on a lack of coordination and complicated by Memorandums of Agreement (MOA), a contract between two agencies outlining policy and procedure on how they are to work together regarding expectations and timelines. Unfortunately, MOAs between agencies are often out of date, not enforced or sometimes do not exist. Additionally, where my job was dedicated to mining, my federal counterparts at the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service wear multiple hats, managing lands for recreation, creating management plans for parks and monuments and dealing with oil and gas leasing, as well as the projects that require National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review. Efficiency of permitting would be greatly improved if federal agencies had dedicated, full-time staff working on permitting.

Lastly, once all the evaluations are done and all comments have been received, if a decision is made to approve a project, the side on the losing end almost always chooses to litigate. It seems in today’s society litigation has always become the default instead of seeking cooperation at the negotiation table. Negotiating should be a first step requirement.

In some instances, an aggrieved party may only want some type of mitigation or reparation. For example, an Indigenous tribe whose land the project will be located on may agree to the financing of a cultural center by the project proponent in exchange for the tribe’s consent. This is perfect use of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) money, helping to incentivize a settlement.

Permitting reform is complicated, but it is the puzzle piece needed for fixing the problems of a changing climate. Contact your federal and state legislators and ask them to legislate for a clean energy economy with permitting reform that unlocks the clean energy waiting to be built.

How quickly we get to solutions is a policy choice.

(April Abate-Adams) In a guest commentary for The Salt Lake Tribune, April Abate-Adams writes that “permitting reform is complicated but it is the puzzle piece needed for fixing the problems of a changing climate.”

April Abate-Adams has spent her career working in environmental compliance. She worked for the State of Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining as a regulator for 14 years conducting inspections and permit reviews of both coal and hardrock mines.