Daniel Balakov/Getty Images
Getty Images 1323675815

Why (and How) to Go Beyond ‘Average’ Environmental Compliance

July 19, 2022
Utilities may be surprised to learn that upping their environmental compliance game could prove to have more tangible and intangible benefits than they thought.

Environmental compliance is a complex beast. There are rules, regulations, and processes to manage and keep up with; not to mention the balancing act required to deliver project goals while also conducting environmental due diligence and implementing appropriate mitigation strategies.

Now, local, state, and federal regulators have stepped up enforcement of environmental permitting requirements. That, combined with a rise in social awareness, environmental activism, and multi-platform media coverage, complicates environmental compliance even further.

As utilities know, succeeding in environmental siting and permitting is essential to project success. On the flip side, it can be costly to not meet environmental regulations. Not only can it affect project costs and profitability, it can have a tremendous impact on public perception and organizational reputation.

Prioritizing Environmental Compliance

That’s why, for many utilities, environmental compliance ranks at the top of the priority list. To illustrate just how important environmental compliance has become, only safety ranks higher.

But ensuring compliance is not as simple as prioritizing it. Far from it.

From securing agency approval to mitigating environmental risks to planning for long-term and cost-effective operations and maintenance (O&M),it takes effort, expense, and expertise.

While checking the regulatory column of the compliance balance sheet is necessary, it does not ensure full compliance with environmental regulations and does nothing for assuring remediation of environmental issues. Plus, it increases the potential for adding unnecessary project costs and delays.

Counting the Costs

“Historically, cost has been a driving factor for how far above and beyond utilities could go,” said Roy Van Houten, PWS, CE, CPESC, and director –energy at Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc., a Davey company. “We’re now in a climate heavily influenced by ESG strategies, media, and public perception. That means utilities must think, plan, and more upfront than in the past. It’s like choosing a good deck mat versus the right one. The good one is less expensive, until you factor in having to reinforce it over time by stacking one on top of another. On the other hand, the right deck mat may be more expensive at the outset, but it’s capable of handling the load on its own. That means it costs less over time. It’s the same with doing the right thing environmentally. A little more upfront pays off in the long run.”

Van Houten said "By making an operational shift, utilities can take the challenge of compliance and turn it into an opportunity that transforms liabilities into assets."

 “Think of it as an investment in the long-term success of the project and your reputation,” he said. “When we help our utility clients take an above-and-beyond approach to compliance, they’re not only better prepared to address immediate and temporary challenges, but they’realso prepared to handle long-term management and maintenance plans. As a result, their sites continue to function well and stay in compliance for a very long time – without a ton of hassle or headaches for them.”

 Average vs. Extraordinary

An argument could be made that compliance of any kind is costly and time consuming, which is why some utilities do the best they can and cross their proverbial fingers.

 Unfortunately, when compliance isn’t done right (or at all) and it’s discovered by regulators or, perhaps, by a citizen who happens to drive by and witnesses a blowout, it is literally a federal offense. And that can lead to severe consequences, such as stop work orders, fines, difficulty in explaining ESG issues, and hearing from a vocal public.

“Reputation is always on the line,” said Van Houten, “If public perception is that the utility is only out for themselves, it doesn’t matter what the truth is. Perception is reality. That’s why human due diligence is just as important as environmental due diligence.”

Utilities simply cannot afford — financially or reputationally — to hand off environmental compliance and hope for the best.

Using “what if” questions can help utilities think about compliance in a way that helps them create meaningful, measurable environmental performance that not only ensures compliance, but also saves them money while boosting the feel-good factor among their constituents:

  •  What if utilities strategized upfront?
  • What if they brought in environmental consultants before a plan was developed?
  • What if they had strategies in place that minimized oversight and expedited permitting?
  • What if they knew exactly which cost-effective closeout activities would work best for a project before they even sought agency approval?
  • What if they implemented a streamlined O&M strategy that cut down on right-of-way (ROW) maintenance and supported healthy habitat?

Practical Ways Utilities Can Go Beyond ‘Good Enough’ Compliance

When it comes to re-thinking their approach to compliance, utilities must understand that they are subject to more scrutiny than ever. Next, they should take practical and actionable steps like these:]

Build a well-rounded team.

In addition to utility and design teams, a project team should include highly trained environmental experts that can provide guidance through the permit application process, as well as monitor compliance for the life of the project and through permit closeout.

Think ahead.

“Plan, plan, plan,” said Van Houten. “With our clients, we go in and hash things out on a white board. That way, everyone has a clear picture of the overarching goals. It also starts to build trust among team members because everyone’s bringing something to the board. By the time we’re done, we’re all on the same page.”

Van Houten also offered these best-practice recommendations for developing an integrated plan:

  • Align any plans with the ROW (or other project) manager’s overall goals and objectives.
  • Include accurate baseline data, as well as consider opportunities and future uses of the data.
  • Create opportunities to accomplish multiple objectives simultaneously, such as increasing the ESG reporting score, engaging the public, and generating positive PR.
  • Ensure that the plan allows for the most efficient use of such limited resources as time and money.
  • Put monitoring parameters in place to help track progress and measure quality.

Stop making assumptions.

Leverage the knowledge and experience of each team member. Never assume something as fact without confirming it from someone who knows.

“Traditionally, good designs have started in the office,” said Van Houten. “But by incorporating the knowledge of the folks who’ve walked the fields for decades, we can refine the design to the benefit of the project. It’s powerful when we use each other as a resource.”

For example, some part of the team might suggest using a certain seed mix before closeout. Rather than going ahead with it, a simple phone call or text to the environmental consultant could reveal that that seed mix won’t take because the area is a wetland and might recommend a better alternative solution.

“Utilities should expect the people they hire to bring the missing components to the table,” explained Van Houten, “For example, we had a California-based client that slated US$ 1million for irrigation. Not a problem if you’re in California. But the project was in Virginia, where irrigation just isn’t necessary, so our insight and experience saved them from incurring unnecessary costs.”

Take an integrated approach.

Utilities have every reason to expect to continue a cycle of building and rebuilding, even with all the many coming changes in energy and energy sources.

Which is all the more reason to put environmental initiatives on a continual cycle, too.

Van Houten explained, “The vast majority of energy projects are never really completed. They’re constantly evolving into different phases of existence: design, permit, construct, monitor, maintain, rebuild, repeat. The same can be said of compliance. That’s why utilities can no longer afford to look at A-to-Z compliance. Z is just the end of a phase. So, we came up with a concept that involves taking an A-to-Infinity approach to compliance. Our integrated approach affords utilities the opportunity to re-imagine compliance through a sustainable framework that reduces environmental impact, improves public communication, and promotes a positive reputation.”

Bryce Miller has been with WSSI for 15 plus years and is currently the director of environmental compliance. Miller is passionate about understanding his clients’ needs and building long-term relationships. He and his forward-thinking team work tirelessly to provide innovative compliance solutions across a wide range of business sectors and geographies. Miller is located in Richmond, Virginia, and can be reached at [email protected].

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!