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Interior Named Lead Agency in New Senate Transmission Draft

The Department of Interior (DOI) will coordinate federal permitting and reviews of "high-priority" national electric transmission projects under a new draft bill that was released just hours before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was to resume mark-up of its comprehensive energy legislation last Wednesday. But due to a series of Senate floor votes that were scheduled that day, the committee postponed mark-up of its new transmission title until this week.

DOI would act as the lead agency for the purpose of coordinating activities of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and any Indian tribes, multistate entities and state agencies that are responsible for permitting and conducting environmental reviews of "high-priority" transmission projects. These projects are defined as facilities that operate at or above a voltage of 345-kV alternating current; at or above a voltage of 300-kV direct current; or a renewable feeder line than transmits electricity directly to a transmission line that operates at or above a voltage of 345-kV alternating current or 300-kV direct current.

Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), said DOI was designated as lead agency at the request of the Republicans on the committtee.

"This was a compromise" between Democrats and Republicans on the Senate energy panel, countered Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the committee.

"It's not that we [Republicans] necessarily think DOI is the 'best' agency to manage it. It's more like majority staff refused to allow FERC [other than the Section 368 rights-of-way authority] to take the lead and would only agree to DOI. We felt it so important to have one lead agency for NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] that we agreed on the DOI approach," he said.

The new draft calls for all permit decisions and environmental reviews under federal law to be completed no later than one year after a project application has been filed.

As the lead agency DOI, in consultation with FERC and any other affected agency, will prepare a single environmental review document, which will be used as the basis for all decisions on a proposed high-priority national transmission project under federal law.

If any agency has denied federal approval of a transmission facility within an energy right-of-way corridor on federal land, or has failed to act by the one-year deadline, the applicant could file an appeal with President Obama. The president would have 90 days to issue a decision on appeal.

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