NRDC'S Felicia Marcus Streamling Transmission Approval Process

Felicia Marcus

Elected officials and utilities have clearly prioritized upgrading the national energy infrastructure, however, significant challenges in investment and regulatory approvals require solutions before a new green energy economy can emerge.  In the following VerdeXchange News interview, Felicia Marcus, recently hired as western director of the National Resources Defense Council, discusses California’s plans to expedite the renewable development process. 


VerdeX: We’re doing this interview at the Governor’s Global Climate Summit. One of the critical issues emerging at the conference, and emerging nationally, is the possible collaboration of the environmental movement with the new president and new Congress to find a way to expedite the approval process for renewables, transmission, permitting, and green infrastructure projects. The governor just had a press conference yesterday around this issue. Could you comment on the governor’s proposal, and then we’ll get into the larger issues of the national agenda?

Felicia Marcus: The governor’s proposal had two parts. First was a set of legislative principals sent over to the Legislature to raise the minimum requirement for renewables from a 20 percent goal by 2010 to 33 percent by 2020, which is terrific and important. It also is important because it includes all utilities, not just investor-owned utilities. All of a sudden you have a chance for a level playing field between the investor-owned and the municipal utilities.
He also issued an executive order, however, that brought together the state agencies, and was also signed by a number of federal agencies, to deal specifically with this issue of how to facilitate transmission from renewables into the state electricity grid while also protecting habitat. The plan does not say, “We’re going to expedite any project that walks through the door. All projects are good.” That is inherently inefficient and leads to an individual approach that doesn’t take the whole magnitude of what you are trying to do into account. It acts instead for the agencies to come together, consult with stakeholder, of course, to figure out programmatically where the optimal place to put transmission lines that would do the least harm habitat, at the same time putting together a Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP) to actually try to protect the most important habitat for species. Instead of saying, “We’re going to whisk away rules on behalf of this greater good, “ this proposal sets up a process for figuring how to maximize both goods.

VerdeX: Is this plan based on what other states are doing; and how do you, as western director of the NRDC, evaluate whether this process is worthy of advancing?

Marcus: It’s not unique in the concept. A lot of what happened in the CALFED process was an attempt to take a whole bucket of problems—a whole bucket of conflicting needs—and have all the people around the table that would need to be to figure out what the path through is—the Delta Vision process is just a more recent and perhaps a better version of a plan like this. It is sort of a time-honored practice that is really the only way to reconcile conflicting priorities. The beauty of the renewables plan is that it is an issue of which the environmental community is very supportive, but they also want to protect species and habitat, so it is actually a very appealing process. Quite a few of the environmental groups who are involved said “yes” to that in part because of recognizing that getting renewables into the system is something that people have been dreaming of for a long time. There is a really strong incentive to make this plan work.

VerdeX: What I am hearing is that we need certainty. Does the governor’s proposal provide the certainty necessary in order to plan multi-year, multi-decade projects?

Marcus: If it’s successful it should. It will create a programmatic approach to finding the best transmission corridors and making subsequent decisions. Then that corridor will be there, and there will be habitat protected in perpetuity. You’ll also get certainty on the side of the environmental community, knowing that, for instance, all Desert Tortoises aren’t fair game. It will something where you’ll have one process that will be transparent so people can weigh in on it and know that they really are getting something that is good for renewable energy and good for California versus what is just commercially appealing for one particular entity.

VerdeX: Because the new Congress and new president expressed that they will advance this as a national policy, do you expect the California governor’s order to be adopted by the Western States and the federal government?

Marcus: I don’t know. I think the principal of it is sound. Trying to do anything on that broad of a scale is difficult, so I think the principals have to be applied differently.

VerdeX: Is your past CALFED experience raising a caution flag?

Marcus: In my view, in processes like these—when you have people who are distrustful on one side, who see themselves as losers under the systems they have seen in the past—there is just a lot of skepticism. In order to move a win-win from being seen as a lose-lose, it has to be intelligible. People have to feel like they can get their arms around the issue. If you go beyond a geographic location, much beyond a few states, it becomes way too remote for people to feel they have a shot at understanding the process.

VerdeX: You are the new western director of the NRDC. Is there an opportunity for the Western States to act as one?

Marcus: The transmission issues really do transcend one state, so there could be an opportunity. In the same way that you have the Western Climate Initiative recognizing that there are commonalities between the Western States—they give you an economy of scale, a different set of renewable resources—you can begin to think of it that way. Where it falls apart, potentially, is that it is too big and too complex for smaller businesses or smaller environmental groups to feel like they can actually have a seat at the table. It has to be accessible—I think CALFED is pushing the envelope—even Northern and Southern California don’t see themselves as one place.

VerdeX: President-elect Obama contributed a video to the governor’s summit that we are attending; he spoke of a commitment to renewables, energy security, and to “rebuilding America” by creating a new green jobs program. If you were sharing a table with high ranking federal government officials, what lessons would you share as they advance their plans?

Marcus: Renewables: focusing on what it takes to get renewable energy on the table is a no brainer and a win-win-win-win-win—for jobs, for energy security, for public health, and for solving the climate crisis. Renewable energy should be at the top of the charts for what they really ought to focus on—making sure that it gets the incentives that have, for too long, not gone the way of renewable energy, instead going toward fossil fuel combustion. Also, focusing on green jobs that can come out of that and finding ways to do job training and incentives for hiring out of communities domestically. That is really the big win.

Part of it is making the projects good enough that they are compelling on their own. Looking for projects and grouping them in a way where people, the public, environmental communities, and community groups pull together where it is really evident that a project is for social good. That means creating a better project—a project that includes job training or keeps jobs here, where you are building stronger communities as you are building a new energy infrastructure. I think President-elect Obama and the people he is going to bring in have shown an ability to handle the complexity of that new era so that projects become designed better in the first place.

VerdeX: Haven’t we created a set of institutions because people haven’t been at the table, so they have put silos up to protect what they think is valuable, and, thus, trying to get them to do trade-offs and reach common ground, even on good projects, is a daunting task?

Marcus: I have so rarely seen people do it well. But I don’t blame the process as much as I blame project proponents. I think people have approached CEQA and NEPA very poorly. At best they have handed over what are supposed to be good planning processes over to consultants who charge them by the word or by the pound and who don’t put clear, intelligible documents together from which the public or a decision maker can have any confidence that a project is really going to be done well.

VerdeX: Haven’t they behaved so because they fear process lawsuits?

Marcus: They behave so because they haven’t done a good job. When I went into L.A. City Public Works, I was appalled at the quality of the documents we were paying for. We took our document in house—worked with maybe one consulting we thought were very good. Our documents became shorter and clearer. When we went into the public review process we actually listened to the comments—and in response to the comments, we actually changed our comments and made them better. At the end of the projects, either 100 people didn’t show up anymore or people showed up and said, “Thanks for listening.” We got our projects through must faster and without litigation. It can be done. It is just normally done poorly. People outsource those documents without thinking about the purpose of the document. As a result, they guarantee a skeptical audience from community groups who feel that it is written in “engineering-ese” and that it is meant to hide the ball. It is a combination of how you write the document, how you explore the alternatives, how you present it, and how you respond to the comments you receive. The goal is not to make every single person happy. The goal is to do a job with integrity, to respond to good ideas from the public or other entities, and incorporate it into the project if you can.

VerdeX: From your experience, how does one best explore the alternatives in the most productive way?

Marcus: The issue about alternatives is a little bit easier when you are doing a programmatic—EIR or EIS. That’s kind of the beauty of what the executive order of Governor Schwarzenegger is saying. That doesn’t get into the CEQA issues, but if you are proposing that will deal with a particular social good programmatically and look at all the consequences, you are telling an intelligible story and you can make trails. With CEQA particularly, you can do a Statement of Overriding Concerns and you can choose an alternative that may be more environmental damaging if you have a compelling reason to do it. It is easier to do that when you are doing a programmatic approach to what we need as a society than when you are looking at an individual project proponent who wants to do “a thing.” Then they are isolated on their own for their own financial benefit, doing something that may also be good, but doesn’t have the same compelling interest of the community as a whole as a programmatic approach to the problem does. Programmatics have their own legal perils because it’s hard to be detailed, so there is a trade-off.

VerdeX: Drawing from your experience leading U.S. EPA District 9 in San Francisco in the last years of the Clinton Administration, if you could write a note to the new head of the U.S. EPA, Lisa Jackson, what would be on that note?

Marcus: The first thing in the note would be that it is very important to restore the trust and morale of the good employees of the EPA. It has been a long, hard eight years. They have felt taken advantage of, ignored, and unable to do the job of the Environmental Protection Agency. The morale of the folks in the agency is a really important thing to restore because you have an incredible reservoir of talent waiting. On the substantive manner, the first thing is that you grant California all those waivers that the Bush Administration would not. That recognizes the really stellar job in leadership that California has done for a long time, particularly when it has to do with fuels for mobile sources. Giving California its due without giving California a blank check would be a really good place to start.

VerdeX: The EPA includes West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, as well as the West. What would you advise regarding the balancing act necessary in the position?

Marcus: The U.S. EPA is supposed to be about environmental protection, which doesn’t just apply in California. Fourteen states want to follow the California model for emissions requirements, including New York and a lot of New England—it’s not just California.

One of the places that the Clinton Administration finally started to crack down on toward the end was interstate pollution from coal generating states into other states. You just have to deal with that because there are public health consequences for such extreme emissions.

VerdeX: You will be at the VerdeXchange Conference at the end of January. What do you expect we will be talking about, less than a week after the inauguration of President Obama, with a new Congress in place, and the Cabinet in place—what do you think will be the subject matter of our conversation?

Marcus: How to advance innovative technologies to solve our problems and create jobs at home—make real money for good actors in the green economy. There a million issues and plenty of bad things to roll back and all of that, but what is different now is that we have the potential for solving our energy needs and creating a new energy economy that we lead, grows our economy, makes us more secure, and is reliable and local. All of that, with an emerging industry ready to go, versus being victims of the old energy economy. •••

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