The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) is working to establish regulatory frameworks that incentivize infrastructure developers to analyze cumulative impacts of projects and protect environmental justice communities, said Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president for Massachusetts.
An established EJ framework can “empower regulators to reject projects that overburden cumulatively impacted communities,” she said Wednesday during a climate and energy infrastructure panel hosted by the Northeast Energy and Commerce Association.
During the event, energy experts shared stakeholders’ and developers’ perspectives on the challenges of achieving climate targets and building infrastructure to meet those targets.
While CLF supports clean energy deployment, Sloan spoke from stakeholders’ perspective, saying that understanding cumulative project impacts “is critical to assess the impact of the proposed project on different stakeholders.” A cumulative analysis identifies impacts from a proposed project on the project area and the impacts of other actions from the past, present or future that also would affect the project area.
“In this current era, when developers and clean energy businesses really want to do the right thing by EJ populations, you have to use cumulative impacts analysis or you’re still going to wind up disproportionately burdening EJ populations in siting,” Sloan said.
EJ-focused regulations focus on cumulative burdens on EJ populations within the existing “well established framework of siting regs,” she said. CLF’s effort to raise the bar on cumulative impacts analysis seeks to ensure that developers are thinking about EJ communities in the early siting phase. Doing so, she said, could build community support for a project and avoid a “late wave of opposition.”
In Sloan’s view, EJ populations approach stakeholder engagement from a different perspective than under-burdened communities. If a project’s location, design and impacts are “totally locked in,” she said, it inhibits participation from community members.
They have “decades, centuries of well earned skepticism and concern about the intentions that major institutions have for an EJ community,” she said, adding that developers must engage with the community early in the design process, when change is still possible.
Massachusetts’ 2021 Next Generation Roadmap climate law directed the Department of Environmental Protection to issue regulations by the end of this year for incorporating cumulative analyses into the review of certain air permits. DEP will propose draft cumulative analysis regulations by October and take public comment on them through December.
At the beginning of this year, the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) Office implemented new protocols for EJ community involvement in permitting processes and analysis of EJ community impacts, as directed by the climate law.
The new MEPA regulations represent “the first major changes” to the review process in “many years,” said TJ Roskelley, partner at Anderson & Kreiger.
Speaking during the event from the developers’ perspective, Roskelley called the new protocols “complicated.”
“There’s going to be a lot of learning by doing over the next year,” he said. “As soon as we start to get filings and some feedback from stakeholders and from the MEPA office, I think we will understand this process a lot better.”
The new regulation updates the existing thresholds for what constitutes a basic or extended project review in the permitting process. A review for a project within 1 mile of an EJ community (or 5 miles for projects that affect air quality) must move from a basic 30-day review to include a full environmental impact report (EIR).
Any project that meets the threshold for a full EIR also triggers an enhanced public engagement protocol, which requires notice of the project within a required time frame and “meaningful” outreach to promote public involvement.
For Megan Aconfora, public involvement specialist at Burns & McDonnell, stakeholder engagement should change based on the community in which a project is located, but the process must be consistent across communities for developers to find broad success.
Engaging with an EJ community requires a developer to use “different tactics” from other communities, Aconfora said. In sensitive communities, a town hall conversation will not be “productive,” she said, adding that some communities need the developer to build trust.
“Sometimes trust means not immediately rolling in and talking about your project, but just showing yourself as someone that they can communicate with,” she said.
While early community engagement is critical for large-scale energy infrastructure projects, Joe Rossignoli, founder of the consulting firm Ross Emergent, said it’s possible to “design support into a proposal” by “making greater use of the existing transmission system.”
That approach might include, for example, using storage as a transmission asset to ensure bulk system reliability on lines that traditionally would be constrained to prevent outages.
“These devices allow lines that would otherwise be security constrained for N-1 contingencies to flow at their nominal capability,” he said. The instantaneous response, he added, prevents the line from experiencing a thermal overhold.
Another option is to take a fresh look at limits on the amount of power that can flow over a right of way. Doing so, Rossignoli said, would require a review of the Northeast Power Coordinating Council rules that permit the evaluation of extreme consistency violations based on the historic or projected variability in the use of lines on interregional corridors.
“What’s clear from recent developments is that cutting new rights of way to get customer access to power supply and in neighboring regions just isn’t doing the job,” Rossignoli said.