The Biden Administration has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help Puerto Rico transition to a greener and more resilient energy future, but it’s on the verge of making a multibillion-dollar mistake.
Puerto Rico adopted laws that called for generating 15% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, 40% by 2025, 60% by 2040 and 100% by 2050. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which controls relief funding for the island, appears ready to underwrite a rebuild of the old fossil fuel system.
As environmental lawyers and professors of law, we are surprised to see FEMA move forward on a path that runs directly counter to the White House’s energy and climate policy. President Joe Biden has called for a governmentwide approach that promotes clean energy, protects public health and the environment, and advances environmental justice.
In our view, FEMA’s actions don’t support those goals. They also ignore legal requirements for federal agencies to carefully weigh the environmental impacts of major actions.
Rebuild or replace with a more resilient green system?
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 155 mph. It tore a diagonal 100-mile swath across the island, demolishing tens of thousands of homes and washing away roads and bridges.
In response, Congress authorized some $23 billion in disaster aid, including at least $10 billion to restore or replace Puerto Rico’s electricity grid. It also passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act to promote a more flexible energy system that could withstand and recover quickly from climate disruptions.
FEMA, which administers the funds, has allocated $9.4 billion for rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electricity system and will start approving projects after it receives more details explaining how the work will be performed. So far, none of this money has been earmarked for renewable power, except for a small sum to repair a hydroelectric dam that provides less than 1% of the island’s power.
The organizations making decisions in Puerto Rico are the Commonwealth’s Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, and Luma Energy, a private company that received a 15-year contract in 2021 to manage power transmission and distribution on the island. PREPA and Luma have proposed hundreds of projects for the coming decade, but none include federal funding for rooftop solar, community solar, battery storage or microgrids. Advocates say that this kind of small-scale local generation would make the island’s electricity cheaper, cleaner and more reliable.
Spending almost $10 billion to rewire an island with 3 million residents is clearly a major federal action with significant environmental impacts. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, agencies undertaking such actions must prepare an environmental impact statement that takes a hard look at alternatives and invites meaningful public input.
Both PREPA and Luma are proponents of an energy strategy that centers on importing natural gas. Federal law requires FEMA to take a broader approach and ensure that it spends federal money in ways that support U.S. environmental goals.
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Courts have held that environmental justice is not simply a box to be checked. In our view, the law clearly requires FEMA to give Puerto Ricans – who have lived with a creaky power system for four years – a seat at the table before it starts writing checks for projects that affect their lives.
Rachel Stevens is a Staff Attorney and Professor of Law with Vermont Law School's Environmental Justice Clinic and Environmental Advocacy Clinic. She also serves on the Executive Committee of Sierra Club's Vermont Chapter.
Patrick Parenteau does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.