Office of NEPA Policy and Compliance

Programmatic EIS Posed Many Challenges, Offers Immediate and Lasting Benefits

September 1, 2015

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By: Matt Marsh, Mark Wieringa, and Micah Reuber, Western Area Power Administration

Programmatic consideration of environmental impacts and mitigation is a pathway to streamlining NEPA review. The proposals in this example share a common technology (wind energy), geographic scope (upper Midwestern states), and federal action (permitting the interconnection of a new electricity generating facility to the transmission system owned and operated by Western Area Power Administration). The joint lead agencies persisted in addressing many challenges, completed a programmatic EIS (PEIS), and found that it is yielding immediate efficiencies in tiered project-level reviews.

The Upper Great Plains (UGP) area, including all or parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, has a high potential for wind energy development because of widespread strong winds. To address environmental concerns associated with such development, Western Area Power Administration (Western) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) used a programmatic EIS to streamline the NEPA review process and implement cost effective mitigation strategies.

As joint lead agencies, Western and the USFWS prepared the Upper Great Plains Wind Energy Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (DOE/EIS-0408; April 2015) to

  1. Assess the potential environmental impacts associated with wind energy projects that may interconnect to Western’s transmission system or that may include placement of facilities on grassland or wetland easements managed by the USFWS within the UGP Region; and
  2. Evaluate how environmental impacts would differ under alternative sets of environmental evaluation procedures, best management practices (BMPs) and mitigation measures that the agencies could request project developers to implement.

Although the geographic scale of the analysis, the different objectives of the joint lead agencies, and the large number of individuals involved in the preparation and review of the document presented coordination and communication challenges, the PEIS – albeit 7 years in the making – is viewed as a worthwhile effort and valuable reference.

Lessons Learned: What Went Well

Preparation of the PEIS went very well during the planning stage (Summer 2008) and throughout the public scoping period (Fall 2008). Western received only positive comments on the project with the most common comment being, “Hurry up and get your PEIS for wind energy done so we [the wind developers and Western customers] can start using it.” After delving into writing the PEIS, Western and the USFWS decided it would be best to also prepare a programmatic biological assessment (programmatic BA). Information for 28 species of concern was gathered and analyzed. A comprehensive list of conservation measures (BMPs, minimization measures, avoidance measures, and mitigation measures) was developed for each species of concern.

To ensure that project developers using the PEIS will follow the programmatic BA, Western and the USFWS developed a review and approval system based on consistency forms and checklists of conservation measures for each species. If a wind project developer commits to implement the applicable conservation measures, Western’s consultation responsibilities under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act are concluded when Western and the USFWS review and sign the consistency forms; no separate Section 7 consultation is required.

The UGP Wind PEIS evaluated measures to minimize impacts to the species of concern, including the greater sage grouse (left) and whooping crane, evaluated in the programmatic BA.

Dispersed Team and Long Schedule Created Challenges

Most large NEPA projects depend on a well-functioning team, and this PEIS was no exception. Western, USFWS, and the PEIS preparation contractor needed to function effectively as an integrated multidisciplinary team of scientists, managers, specialists, biologists, and other team members.

One major challenge was coordinating a large team spread out over five states. Sit down meetings were infrequent due to travel time and cost, as well as difficulty in coordinating schedules. When problems arose – for example, regarding funding limits, schedule conflicts, or resource shortages – conference calls were scheduled almost immediately to start brainstorming on solutions.

Another major challenge was performing the NEPA analysis as joint lead agencies. A joint lead arrangement between a regulated agency and its regulator inevitably entails different perspectives and needs, and sometimes even opposing goals. Coordinating with the approval authorities in one’s own agency can take some time, but coordinating approvals concurrently in two agencies multiplied the time required. Often, when decisionmakers in one organization would sign a document and send it to the other organization for signature, decisionmakers in the second organization identified additional changes, thus prompting another round of review.

During the nearly 7 years it took to complete the PEIS, loss of institutional knowledge from the inevitable staff retirements and transfers had a substantial impact on progress. Bringing new staff members up to speed also proved challenging.

At times, key individuals were not available when needed to schedule public scoping meetings, hearings, and document signings. Delays arose when the agencies waited for input from those individuals before moving forward, or when the agencies moved forward without key input and needed to coordinate revisions based on that input when it was received later.

Another challenge was that the ESA status of several species analyzed in the programmatic BA changed during the consultation and review process, requiring substantial revision to both the programmatic BA and PEIS. Reaching agreement among the biologists was challenging – internally within each agency, between the two lead agencies, and with the cooperating agencies (Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service).

A critical issue was the sheer number of individuals involved with review of the document, and the inability for the designated point of contact to speak with one voice for all elements of the joint lead agencies. Decisions made and acted upon by the project team were often challenged at a later point by previously uninvolved parties. Concurrent initiatives, such as the USFWS Section 10 Wind Energy Habitat Conservation Plan effort, caused some project team members to feel that the separate efforts needed to be completely consistent in conservation measures and recommendations. The project schedule expanded accordingly. 

How Tiering Will Work

In a record of decision signed July 14, 2015, Western selected the preferred alternative, which is also the environmentally preferable alternative, to adopt a standardized process for collecting information and evaluating the potential environmental impacts of wind energy interconnection requests. Western and/or the USFWS (as appropriate for a specific project) would coordinate with project developers during project planning activities to identify the project-specific measures that would be applicable to each project. A project-specific NEPA analysis, either an EA or EIS, would be tiered from the PEIS provided that the proposed project incorporates the applicable BMPs and mitigation measures analyzed in the PEIS. The tiered NEPA document would summarize the information covered in the PEIS or incorporate it by reference. This approach would allow for more efficient NEPA documents that would properly focus on local or site-specific issues. If a developer does not wish to implement the evaluation process, BMPs, and mitigation measures identified for the proposed project, a separate consultation or NEPA evaluation that does not tier off the analyses in the PEIS would be required, as appropriate, to address specific issues.

A project-specific ESA Section 7 consultation will utilize the programmatic BA provided that the project implement applicable BMPs, minimization measures, mitigation measures, and monitoring requirements established in the programmatic BA. (Consultation under the National Historic Preservation Act Section 106 process and related tribal consultations will continue unchanged from the present practice, since these issues are very site-specific.)

Conclusion: It Was Worth It

The scope and complexity of this effort were daunting, especially in envisioning how all the complex components would work in concert. Administration policy and senior management support proved instrumental in completing the programmatic BA and the PEIS. Nevertheless, the geographic separation of contributors, their philosophical differences, and the agencies’ conflicting needs and goals caused schedule slippage and additional expense.

Overall, the UGP PEIS for wind energy was a pioneering initiative; already several current and future developers are using the document. Making environmental reviews for proposed wind energy generation projects more efficient is good governance. Additional information is available on the PEIS website or contact Matt Marsh at mmarsh@wapa.gov.

Editor’s Note: Matt Marsh is the NEPA Compliance Officer (NCO) for Western’s Upper Great Plains Service Region and all three authors are NEPA Document Managers. Former NCO Nick Stas, who retired in the summer of 2014 (LLQR, June 2014, page 15), served as NEPA Document Manager until shortly before the Final PEIS was issued.