It’s a well-worn cliché that siting clean energy projects in Massachusetts is difficult. The statutes, regulations, and permitting processes intended to protect the Commonwealth’s environment and communities can also slow development of the clean energy projects that Massachusetts needs to meet its GHG emissions reductions targets and protect against the worst effects of climate change.
The Healey-Driscoll Administration recently signaled that reform might be underway. On April 20th, the Administration announced that it was creating two new state-level commissions: the Commission on Clean Energy Infrastructure Siting and Permitting (CEISP) and the Interagency Offshore Wind Council (IOWC). These commissions will work to reduce clean energy permitting timelines, recommend changes to existing permitting and siting procedures, and increase alignment and collaboration among various state agencies.
The commissions will seek stakeholder input on how permitting and siting in the Commonwealth can be streamlined. Clean energy project developers and other stakeholders should participate, comment, and recommend improvements that would support clean energy deployment without sacrificing key environmental and community protections.
Overview of CEISP and IOWC
The CEISP will be “tasked with reducing permitting timelines, providing communities input in the siting and permitting of clean energy infrastructure, and ensuring that the benefits of the clean energy transition are shared equitably.” The CEISP will make “recommendations on administrative, regulatory, and legislative changes to existing permitting and siting procedures before the end of the year.”
The IOWC is intended to increase interagency collaboration and “advance communication, alignment, collaboration, and joint execution,” and will be responsible for developing an Offshore Wind Strategic Plan. The Offshore Wind Strategic Plan will “lay out frameworks and progress made to date, identify key drivers and policy goals, and prioritize specific findings and actions necessary for the Commonwealth to meet its goals and objectives.”
What type of reforms might be considered?
Siting and permitting processes in Massachusetts require engagement with many state, regional, and local environmental and energy agencies that can each undertake extensive, and often overlapping, reviews. Project developers often submit similar engineering and environmental information to agencies such as the MEPA Office, the Energy Facilities Siting Board, regional development agencies, MassDEP, NHESP, local conservation commissions, and other municipal agencies. The commissions could consider whether there are ways to consolidate these reviews while retaining adequate protections for environmental and community concerns. Changes to state regulations or legislation may be required to accommodate such reforms.
The overlapping reviews often create uncertainty in a clean energy project’s siting and permitting timeline. Uncertainty makes it harder to plan and finance clean energy projects. While there are often ways to appeal or override adverse permitting decisions, those processes can be time-consuming and costly. The commissions could consider ways to streamline permitting processes and appeals processes.
Siting and permitting agencies often consider a wide range of environmental impacts, such as construction-related impacts, noise, air pollution, traffic, visual, open space, wetlands, rare species, and other impacts. Clean energy developers frequently take significant steps to avoid or minimize those impacts in their designs. The commissions could consider ways to reduce the overall time spent assessing potential impacts if developers have already included certain sustainable and protective design elements or best practices in their projects.
The commissions should also consider how permitting processes can better account for the significant emissions reduction benefits of clean energy projects. Many statutory and regulatory permitting processes focus on a narrow set of impacts that are presumed to be negative and do not have a clear mechanism for considering or balancing overall environmental benefits of a project. Siting and permitting processes should also consider whether the project significantly reduces GHG emissions in line with the Commonwealth’s energy goals. Those ambitious goals are a key reason that clean energy projects are being developed in Massachusetts, and they should be just as important in permitting processes, as well.
Finally, more funding for permitting agencies and more staffing would go a long way toward shortening permitting review timelines for the many clean energy projects in the pipeline.
We’ll continue to monitor developments as the stakeholder engagement process unfolds.