Greg Brophy is a farmer and former state senator. He is the Colorado director of The Western Way.
One of the biggest economic development opportunities in rural America is supporting the expansion of new electricity sources.
Whether you’re talking about wind farms, solar arrays, advanced nuclear power plants or large-scale batteries, rural communities are a natural home for these technologies — especially the rural communities of the West.
As a result, we’ve seen a wave of investment in electricity generation — especially wind and solar — across rural America during the past 20 years. But we haven’t reached our potential and there’s plenty of room left to grow.
What’s holding rural America back? It’s a lack of transmission lines to move electricity from states like Colorado and Wyoming, where it’s generated, to states like Nevada and California, where it’s consumed.
Recently, however, there was some good news on this front: The federal approval of a major new transmission line connecting wind farms in Wyoming to California.
The TransWest Express project will span more than 700 miles and add 3,000 MW of new transmission capacity to the power grid. For perspective, that’s enough capacity to move electrical output of three large-scale nuclear power plants.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the project is badly needed because “the wind in Wyoming peaks in the afternoon and stays strong into the evening, meaning it could help California keep the lights on after sundown.”
The construction of the TransWest Express transmission project is expected to create more than 1,000 jobs, and once complete, it will be the largest addition to the Western power grid in decades.
That’s the good news, but here’s the bad news: It took the federal government 15 years to review and approve the TransWest Express project.
Fifteen years: That’s more than triple the time it took for the U.S. to win World War II.
Despite securing approvals from four states, 14 local governments and a slew of private landowners along the proposed route, the developers of TransWest Express hit a brick wall with the federal government, which owns two-thirds of the land that the transmission line will cross.
The massive delay in approving the TransWest Express project was the result of an overly complex and too easily derailed federal permitting process for major infrastructure projects.
Despite being put on the so-called “fast track” in 2011 by the Obama administration, the project got bogged down in red tape and squabbling between different arms of the federal bureaucracy.
At one point, an agency housed inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture even used $3 million of taxpayer money to buy a conservation easement that added years of additional delays to the permitting process, even though the rest of the federal bureaucracy was ready to approve the project.
Rural America cannot afford this kind of insanity to continue, which is why the bipartisan work on permitting reform in Congress is so critically important.
The Lower Energy Costs Act, which recently passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, is about a lot more than producing more of our own oil and natural gas — as important as that is.
The bill also includes critical reforms to speed up the permitting review process for a wide spectrum of energy and mining projects, so that the developers of those projects don’t have to wait several years — or more than a decade in some cases — for a clear “yes” or “no” answer.
The ball is now in the court of the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. But the prospect of bipartisan cooperation on this subject is strong, thanks to the work being done by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and supportive officials in the executive branch.
Manchin has proposed legislation that would streamline the permitting process so that decisions could be reached faster, without lowering the bar on environmental protections. Democratic leaders in the Senate have obstructed his efforts, but even the Biden administration supports the proposed reforms.
“We can move faster by setting tighter deadlines for agencies to complete environmental reviews,” John Podesta, a top energy adviser to President Joe Biden, said recently at the CERAWeek by S&P Global conference in Houston. “We can move smarter by making it easier to approve projects with low environmental impact.”
“But Congress needs to do its job … and pass permitting reform legislation,” Podesta concluded.
Despite our polarized politics, there’s simply too much agreement on this subject for nothing to change, and for 15-year delays in the federal permitting process to still be possible.
The rural communities of the West need these reforms badly. Right now, we have the potential to vastly increase the amount of energy we provide for the U.S. economy, but no way to get that energy to market.
Our communities are poorer as a result, and that is why Republicans and Democrats must find a way to work through their differences on this issue.