The Federal Permitting Council gets a new lease on life thanks to new infrastructure spending

It's one thing to want new infrastructure, but it's another thing to get a project through a nearly impenetrable thicket of federal, state and local environment...

It’s one thing to want new infrastructure, but it’s another thing to get a project through a nearly impenetrable thicket of federal, state and local environmental rules, not to mention the almost inevitable lawsuits. That’s where the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council comes in. For details, Federal Drive Host Tom Temin spoke with Eric Beightel, the Council’s newly-appointed executive director.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And I think there might be a misconception that this Permitting Improvement Steering Council came in as a result of the infrastructure bill, but actually you predate it by quite a number of years.

Eric Beightel That’s correct. The permitting council was established as a part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act in 2015. It was a add on sponsored by Senators Portman and McCaskill who are looking at permitting reform, and they put the Title 41 onto the FAST Act. And so the Fast 41 is the piece of legislation that applies to the permitting Council that established the permitting Council and laid out the rules of the road for how we are to operate and conduct our business, establish the members and our structure, and identified the covered sectors where we have the opportunity to provide additional support to project sponsors as they navigate the federal permitting review process.

Tom Temin And briefly, what are the sectors over which you have some purview?

Eric Beightel It won’t be brief. We actually we have cover 18 different sectors. I won’t go through the whole list. The information is available on permits, dot performance, dot gov. We have a number of resources on that website, but they cover things like renewable energy, conventional energy, electricity transmission, surface transportation, ports and infrastructure, water resources, broadband. Also with the recent CHIPS Act, semiconductor facilities are also a covered sector as well as carbon capture. That was a large investment in IIJA as well as the Inflation Reduction Act and a number of other. So, you know, we cover a vast array of different infrastructure sectors and really it is an opportunity for us to provide that federal support to project sponsors and convene the agencies to help identify a realistic and attainable schedule and hold them to that so that we have some reliability and predictability in the process.

Tom Temin So your issue is really with other agencies at the federal and state and sometimes local level where projects get held up because sponsors, heck, they’d go ahead and build it, you know, in ten weeks if they could, if there were no permitting requirements. Is that a fair way to characterize it?

Eric Beightel I think generally, I mean, we are I wouldn’t characterize it as an issue, but it is an opportunity for us. Each federal agency has their own authorizing statute that directs them to do a certain thing for their mission, whether it be protecting wetlands, whether it be building roadways, whether it be building airports or supporting the nation’s energy infrastructure. Each of them have their own mission, and not all the federal agencies missions are always complimentary. And so there is, you know, some conflicting purpose. And so what the permitting council does is it comes in and provides some additional support to the project teams, both the sponsor and the federal agencies, to help them kind of understand what the expectations are for the permitting process, help facilitate those conversations so that there’s no surprises. Lay out a realistic and attainable project schedule that will dictate how the sequence of events and the timing of those events, and hold the agencies and the sponsors accountable to those schedules. That provides some transparency and predictability to the process, but also it allows folks to be accountable to their specific actions as part of the project lifecycle. And what we do is, you know, as issues come up, we convene the entities, the agencies and the sponsors to try and work through those issues. There’s an elevation process. If we come to a particularly sticky issue that needs higher level input, the field staff can’t resolve it on their own. But ultimately we are not a deciding body. We are a facilitating and support body.

Tom Temin Well, let me ask you about a hypothetical. Suppose I want to build a solar farm, one of those collector types of sites, and I need to run the wires across state lines to get it into a particular electrical grid. So now I’ve got two states involved, maybe a county there might be a zoning issue depending on if it was a farm now, and I’m going to turn it into a solar type of panel farm. What types of things come up there and how do you help people get through it?

Eric Beightel So we are you know, as a federal agency, we are somewhat limited to our ability to influence federal permitting decisions, but not necessarily state or local permitting decisions. But what we can do is support those conversations and provide the information that those other entities may need. We can’t direct you, not that we can direct our federal partners, but we can at least, you know, convene that discussion and make sure that senior officials are involved and the issues get resolved. It’s a little bit trickier when you get to state and local entities. As we don’t have that same ability to force the issue. But what we can do is ensure that they are at the table early, that we work with them to identify the types of permits that they may need in the process and make sure that we are providing a roadmap to provide that information to them in a timely manner so that we identify what are the predicate actions that ultimately lead to a decision so that we keep that momentum. And if there’s going to be a challenge, you know, getting some of that information, we’re getting that decision we know early so that we can start to mitigate for that.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Eric Beightel. He’s executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council. And since the passage of the infrastructure bill, has your pace of work picked up and what kinds of things are you dealing with as a result of that law?

Eric Beightel The Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act, as well as the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act. All three provided, you know, a significant infusion of capital into the infrastructure markets, and we are seeing the result of that. A lot of those projects have not yet fully come to delivery. You know, they’re still either in the planning phase, you know, this infusion, a lot of that money was not anticipated. And so projects are getting off the ground currently. We anticipate to see a large volume of projects come through and we expect to expand our portfolio over the course of the next several years as these projects move into the permitting phase. And then in response to that, you know, we received $350 million through the Inflation Reduction Act, and that was to our Environmental Review Improvement Fund. And that is a fund that the permitting Council administers to support investments in strategies and tools that will facilitate a more efficient environmental review process. And so with that 350 million, we are working with the agencies to identify critical needs that they have to themselves respond to the influx of projects that are coming before them, the applications that are going to be surging. And a lot of that is going to be in personnel. Just putting bodies in seats to be able to receive and process these applications is a critical piece of ensuring that we maintain progress. But there’s also broader tools that we are looking at IT tools that will facilitate a more efficient transfer of information, more efficient tracking of information so that we can improve on our transparency and accountability in the overall process. The permitting Council is not immune to the needs of having able, capable individuals in seats to be able to intake this. And so we anticipate also growing our staffing some over the next couple of years. And then there’s also a broader surge of hiring that needs to occur across the federal government. And we’re working with the Office of Personnel Management right now to identify capable project managers that agencies will be able to hire to help manage these projects as they come through. So there’s an outstanding listing on USA Jobs for a government wide project manager position so that we have capable candidates that apply. They get on the list and then the agencies are able to interview and select folks to fill much needed positions to help ensure that we are moving these projects forward accountably and responsibly.

Tom Temin And getting to the council itself, I mean, you’ve got the council and then you’ve got the staff. What is the makeup of the council? What types of people are on there and where do they come from?

Eric Beightel Sure, we have 13 member agencies and again, I won’t go through the laundry list, but it’s, you know, the big players in infrastructure. So we have Department of Transportation, we have the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, but we also have councils such as FERC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We have also the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and a number of other agencies that all have a role in developing infrastructure and that are part of those covered sectors that I mentioned at the top. And though those agencies are represented on the council by deputy secretaries or their equivalents. So the number two person in charge at the agency who has visibility into the operations of those agencies and we meet on a at least a quarterly basis. We bring business to the council as it relates to overall government wide solutions, but also very focused discussions on specific topics that are relevant, whether it be surge hiring. Are there programmatic solutions that we can look at that would affect a wide swath of the agencies and the sectors that they touch? And then we have, you know, more specific conversations on projects and sectors separate from the council that also enable us to have visibility into how those projects are advancing and what challenges they may be encountering so that we can then learn from that, elevate that conversation and then have a best practice, you know, that we can apply across government so that we are learning from our experience and taking those lessons learned and applying them moving forward so that we always have continuous improvement in the process.

Tom Temin And in a nation that sues one another over the color of a mailbox or something. So many large infrastructure projects, even when people do what they should with respect to permitting and they get all the T’s crossed and the I’s dotted lawsuits come up from different groups ancillary to those projects in that area. How does the council deal with that? Or what do you advise people on how to deal with that? There’s nothing really you can do to stop a lawsuit or in any way you can prevail upon a court to toss it out.

Eric Beightel Yeah, that is a that’s a tricky topic. Ultimately, the council itself has no role and no authority in the litigation or individual projects. But what we can do and this is just kind of a general project development best practice is ensure that you are engaging in meaningful public outreach to identify those parties, whether it be groups of stakeholders, whether it be individual landowners who may be affected by the project, who are likely to be concerned or potentially oppose a project and engage with them early, understand their issues and help to hopefully identify. It may not be something where they are a supporter, but you mitigate their opposition and you find win win solutions that will ultimately allow you to proceed and avoid some litigation. You’re not as you as you say, you’re not going to avoid every suit that may possibly come down. There are some parties who are going to sue no matter what, and some of it is not necessarily on the merits of the project, but they’re trying to make a broader statement and that’s the role that they play. What we are trying to do is look at project specific instances and ensure that we are engaging those folks who are most likely materially affected by the project and understand their concerns and make sure that we build into the project definition a way that will address those concerns and hopefully mitigate any sort of adverse effect that they will experience.

Tom Temin And adding all of this up, are you confident that some of the funded infrastructure will actually turn into infrastructure at some point?

Eric Beightel Oh, absolutely. I’m not concerned that we’re not going to build these things. I’m I’m not even concerned that we’re not building them fast enough yet. These are big projects. A lot of these are very big, complex projects. But at the end of the day, you know, there is something along the lines of 96% of the federally funded projects go through the most routine approval for permits, whether it be a categorical exclusion under NEPA, whether it be a programmatic agreement that, you know, structure is a more facilitated and efficient review of the environmental review process, a nationwide permit for the Clean Water Act and other kind of standardized permits that don’t require that high level of rigor and lengthy process. The vast majority of projects go through those sorts of routine processes. We do have, you know, a few of the larger, more complex that take longer that require an environmental impact statement. And those are the ones that get the headlines because they are oftentimes, by definition, the most impactful, but they are also oftentimes the most economically beneficial and most controversial. And so, you know, that takes time. But if we do it smartly, if we are intentional about how we do our outreach and our planning and consider the effects, make sure that we are listening to the public’s concerns and factor those into the project design and the alternatives that we are considering, We can move through the process efficiently. We have to be smart about it, but I think it can be done and that’s a lot of what the Permitting Council is here to do, is to help provide those strategies to project teams to ensure that we are moving through the process on a predictable and accountable timeline.


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