Choosing between Environmental Standards and a Rapid Transition to Renewable Energy Is a False Dilemma

May 24, 2023

Male and female engineers working at solar power plant. Two technicians in reflective clothing walking between rows of photovoltaic panels at solar farm.

"We can improve permit processing times by bolstering agency capacity, fostering early communication with permit applicants, and improving permit coordination."

As the climate crisis and urgent need to transition our energy system away from fossil fuels have led to increased investment in renewable infrastructure, anecdotes illuminating the roadblocks to bringing clean energy online are making the news. Calls for “permitting reforms” to unleash the productive potential of tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) have centered on putting new time limits on environmental reviews and reducing community engagement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the nation’s bedrock environmental protection law. But in “Choosing between Environmental Standards and a Rapid Transition to Renewable Energy Is a False Dilemma,” Jamie Pleune uses empirical research to show that these kinds of proposals would not address the true inefficiencies in the permitting process.

Instead, Pleune makes the case for progressive permitting reforms that will strengthen NEPA and speed up the review process without sacrificing environmental protections or community engagement. Reviewing 41,000 NEPA cases, Pleune and her research colleagues found that delays to permits were not correlated to the stringency of NEPA review and that median review times were significantly shorter than most reporting suggests.

Pleune argues that the true sources of unproductive delay are not due to NEPA-mandated analysis itself, but stem from administrative and expert staffing shortages, poor coordination between permitting bodies, and operator (developer) delays. These issues can be addressed by:

  1. Building agency capacity with long-term funding and strategic workforce planning;
  2. Stakeholder engagement earlier in the process—both with communities and regulators; and
  3. Permit sequencing and transparent schedules.

Pleune notes that rushed decisions have dangerous consequences and jeopardize the long-term efficiency of a project and the success of the renewable transition as a whole.

Key Takeaways

Takeaway #1

Research doesn’t substantiate the claim that NEPA’s procedures cause significant delays in renewable projects. If we go beyond anecdotes, the largest national study of NEPA reviews surveyed 41,000 cases and shows that NEPA EIS statements’—the most stringent form of review—median time to completion is 2.8 years. These reviews account for just 2% of all NEPA reviews.

Takeaway #2

True causes of delay can be addressed without compromising environmental or safety standards or community engagement. The sources of delay are admin and expert staff shortages, coordination between permitting bodies, and operator (developer) delays.

Takeaway #3

Progressive reforms that address these sources of delay will help speed up the review process without compromising environmental protections or communities’ right to engage with infrastructure projects that impact their own physical and economic well being.

  • Build agency capacity with long-term funding and strategic workforce planning
  • Early stakeholder engagement—communities and regulators
  • Permit sequencing and transparent schedules

Takeaway #4

Renewables face the larger threat to build out—transmission capacity and connectivity.

Takeaway #5

Rushed decisions—by cutting corners with environmental protections—will cause long-term consequences and delays.


Jamie Pleune

Jamie Pleune is an environmental lawyer and scholar at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, where she works as an associate professor of law (research) and Wallace Stegner Center fellow. The Wallace Stegner Center has done extensive empirical research into the functionality of environmental statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act. In the past year, Jamie’s research has focused particularly on distinguishing between productive and unproductive causes of delay in the permitting process, and tailoring solutions to address the unproductive causes of delay without compromising environmental standards or procedural transparency. Jamie received her BA from Colorado College, her JD from University of Utah, and her LLM from Georgetown University Law Center, where she worked as a clinical fellow with the Institute for Public Representation.