'Fast track' for energy projects in Colorado

Speeding energy development without compromising local, state, and environmental laws: that is the purpose of a unique process pioneered in Colorado.

If successful, it might well be adapted by other states to respond to the energy challenge without surrendering control of resource development to Washington.

Called the joint review process (JRP) by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which developed it, this is a procedure for coordinating and cutting down the tremendous red tape that surrounds energy development, not only in Colorado but also throughout the United States.

This institutional innovation, praised by representatives from both industry and the environmental movement, will shorten the "permitting" time for major energy developments by as much as 40 to 55 percent, says Harris Sherman, outgoing director of the DNR.

"We think this is extremely important, with Congress putting the finishing touches on the Energy Mobilization Board [EMB]," Mr. Sherman remarked at a press briefing on the JRP.

The EMB, designed to "fast track" major energy developments, is extremely controversial in the capitals of the Rocky Mountain states, which hold much of the nation's cost, uranium, and oil shale. State governors in the area have uniformly condemned the creation of a new federal bureaucracy with the power to override state and local laws.

It now takes 6 to 10 years to start up a new coal mine and 10 to 14 years to get a large power plant on line. Much of his lead time is due to the hundreds of permits required. "In the past, government agencies have worked in a relatively uncoordinated fashion," Mr. Sherman explained.

To reduce the time involved, the JRP involves close coordination among local, state, and federal regulators. The major emphasis is on joint and concurrent reviews of a proposed development. Industries desiring this special treatment must approach the state in the early planning stages. Then the local, state, and federal agencies involved publicly sign a joint statement that commits them to full participation in the process. Public input on the development is solicited one to two years earlier than now is common, at a point where there is a considerable flexibility and public hearings are held throughout the permitting process.

William Reilly of the Conservation Foundation characterizes it as "very promising." What is most important about the JRP, he says, is what it does not do. It does not create a new bureaucracy. It does not override environmental law. It does not reduce public participation.

Equally as laudatory is Stanley Dempsey of Amax Inc., a major mining company. "This is the one place in the Country which has developed a new regulatory mechanism that really works," he commented.

"Colorado is to be complimented for two reasons," Mr. Dempsey continued. "First, because it has made an extremely complicated regulatory process work. Second, because they documented it thoroughly as they went along."

The DNR has just released a draft manual on the process. This, it is hoped, will be of use to DNR's counterparts in other energy- and mineral-rich states. It is also hoped this may have an effect on the congressmen who are crafting the EMB legislation.

"We have two basic hopes," Mr. Sherman summarized. "We would like to see the EMB adopt this approach for their fast-track project. But if they don't, we hope that having this process will obviate the need to designate fast-track projects in Colorado."

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