US permitting improvement council making progress, official says

A federal council formed to improve environmental application reviews for major projects is making progress, its acting executive director told a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Dec. 12.

A federal council formed to improve environmental application reviews for major projects is making progress, its acting executive director told a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Dec. 12. The Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC) “has had recent successes in both systematic improvements, such as increased permitting dashboard transparency, and project-specific permitting process improvements, including enhanced coordination and dispute resolution procedures,” Janet Pfleeger said.

FPISC was created under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act soon after the bill became law on Dec. 4, 2015. Title 41 of the law allows the council to oversee the permitting process for projects requiring authorization or an environmental review, including those under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), by a federal agency, Pfleeger said.

The council also is working actively with the Trump administration to implement Executive Order 13807 to establish a “One Federal Decision” (OFD) policy for major projects requiring an environmental statement under NEPA, Pfleeger said. FPISC is working with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget to develop the OFD framework, she said.

“From my first day [as part of the council’s executive director’s office in January], I have sought to improve the permitting process by focusing on four main areas: transparency and accountability; project specific coordination and dispute resolution; interagency coordination, collaboration, and technical support; and stakeholder outreach,” Pfleeger said.

Council agencies have developed interagency coordinated project plans (CPP) for covered projects, Pfleeger said. CPPs promote interagency problem solving, accountability and predictability by identifying lead, cooperating, and participating agencies for the project; all federal environmental reviews and authorizations required for the project and associated target completion dates; a discussion of potential avoidance, minimization, and mitigation strategies; and plans for public and tribal outreach and coordination, she said.

Pfleeger said the council’s executive office has developed a CPP template primarily for new covered projects, which also is recommended and available to those which exist already. Staff members have met with agencies acting in a lead or cooperating role to discuss remaining work for CPPs to be deemed accurate and complete, she said.

“Project sponsors have contacted the executive director for help with specific issues—for instance, when an agency did not respond to their questions, when different staff within an agency provided contradictory responses, and when different agencies working together on a project provided conflicting information,” Pfleeger said. “In these situations, my office has been able to intervene when communication within and among agencies breaks down to facilitate and resolve a misunderstanding, disagreement, or dispute.”

Specifically, she said that her office:

• Worked with one agency whose inefficient internal environmental review process did not meet the agency’s responsibilities under FAST-41.

• Facilitated conflict resolution between another agency’s headquarters and field offices to coordinate and deliver consistent information to project sponsors.

• Advised an agency’s multiple field offices to collaborate more closely so they could speak with one voice when they met with a covered project’s sponsor.

• Convened meetings with agencies facing unusual circumstances outside of their control to identify and implement creative solutions to keep the permitting process on schedule while ensuring that the agencies’ statutory responsibilities are not compromised.

The council also has begun to share best practices to improve the permitting process for covered projects, and to reach out to state and local governments, current and potential project sponsors, and nongovernmental organizations.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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