July 31, 2017|By Robin Murphy| Land

Dialogue across government and throughout the country on the need to invest as much as $1 trillion in our nation’s infrastructure is intensifying. To contribute to this discussion, The Conservation Fund convened the National Summit on Infrastructure and the Environment in June for more than 150 business leaders, government decision-makers, regulatory and permitting experts and conservation community representatives. Participants presented and discussed innovative approaches to infrastructure development that successfully accelerate approval processes, while addressing impacts to natural, cultural and historic resources.  

Infrastructure developers representing natural gas, oil, electric, wind, solar, nuclear, water and transportation and related industries shared their experiences, including challenges faced and recommendations for change. Federal and state agency decision-makers offered their perspectives on modernizing the environmental review and approval process.  

7 31 Welcome RemarksLarry Selzer, President and CEO of The Conservation Fund, welcomes Summit participants at a reception preceding the event. Photo by Paul Morigi.

We believe the timing for this discussion was appropriate, and adhered to our long-standing belief that bringing divergent points of view and expertise together produces the most constructive outcomes.

Here are five key take-aways from the Summit:

1. Infrastructure Development is Challenging. 
Obstacles and inconsistencies associated with permitting infrastructure projects were identified at the Summit. From the perspective of regulators, there is insufficient early and regular communication and information-sharing from the development community – a sense of often being ‘in the dark’ about upcoming development projects.  Developers are encouraged to share their project plans with regulators before they have ventured too far into the process.  

Developers expressed numerous areas for improvement as well.  Many processes are not handled consistently across agencies, or in some cases, do not appear to exist, leading to a sense of unpredictability and uncertainty.  This applies to inconsistency about regulations even within a single agency.  The substantive basis for decisions are often not clear.

Among other concerns are overlapping requirements among federal and state agencies with limited coordination among agencies; reviews conducted one at a time rather than concurrently for synchronization; and that information developed for one agency is too often not translatable or utilized by another agency.  Finally, regulatory reviews and decisions are often not completed in a timely manner, leading to costly project delays that ultimately reach consumers’ pocketbooks.

7 31 Alan Armstrong photoAlan Armstrong, President and CEO of Williams Companies, Inc., delivers his opening keynote address at the Summit. Photo by Paul Morigi.

2. Early Engagement is Essential.  
With many parties involved in infrastructure development, dialogue should begin as early as possible.  This means conversations between developers and regulators at all levels; among government agencies, developers and communities; as well as between the environmental community and developers.    

Every party should be prepared to recognize that projects are complex and that one size does not fit all.  Early communication and full participation help create clear and realistic plans, more informed understanding of processes as well as insight into concerns and positions of stakeholders.  

3. Modernize the Process without Eliminating the Regulatory Requirements.  
Improving environmental permitting should not lead to complete deconstruction of the regulatory process.  Processes can be improved and modernized, and the following could be models to do just that:  

  • Title 41 of the FAST Act: (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation): the Act establishes a lead federal agency to coordinate reviews, helps facilitate early consultation between project developers and cooperating agencies, and provides a transparent, publicly-accessible dashboard for tracking projects.  The Act also offers dispute resolution procedures and project-specific coordination with agencies.
  • Use of FERC Pre-filing Process:  this acts as a central point of contact – a clearinghouse – to improve project authorization through high-level oversight, including identifying potential conflicts among agencies.  This process can substantially reduce uncertainty for development projects.
  • State Initiatives: the role of states in regulatory processes and implementation is substantial, accounting for a significant share of authority in environmental decisions with regard to infrastructure projects.  Many innovative solutions are emanating from state incubators in the regulatory arena.

4. Focus on Collaboration, not Confrontation.  
With intensifying community and stakeholder concern about infrastructure projects, developing early and collaborative communication and relationships with local leaders is essential.  Provide outreach so local stakeholders can more fully understand how projects are developed, their impacts, and create individualized outreach plans for affected stakeholders or stakeholder groups, including tribes. Consider voluntary community grants and other community-oriented projects.  Seek to understand internal struggles within communities, which can also pose unanticipated conflict and delay.  Voluntary stewardship programs and community-focused, third-party implemented permittee-responsible mitigation often provides optimal flexibility, and can be the most effective approach to engage local communities.

7 31 Audience shotPanelists at the Summit converse with participants following their presentations and discussion. Photo by Zhivko Illeieff.

5. A Shift in Leadership?  
There are increasing perspectives that government cannot sufficiently address and protect environmental and related cultural and historic priorities.  The private sector and its infrastructure development community may assume a greater share of the mantle of leadership in balancing their efforts with the value placed by citizens for preservation of our natural, cultural and historic resources.  The nature of these challenges is complex, and can benefit from more creativity and leadership that the business community can provide.

In sum, as momentum builds for infrastructure expansion and energy independence, protection of our natural, cultural and historic resources can be achieved when business, government and conservation leaders work together. 

To learn more about the Fund’s Mitigation Solutions program, please visit http://www.conservationfund.org/what-we-do/mitigation-solutions