House bill looks to streamline permitting of renewables on federal land

Source: By Matthew Bandy, SNL • Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement on renewable energy, Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee spoke in favor of a bill intended to streamline the permitting process for developers of renewable energy projects on federal land.

By “shortcutting the tedious and costly environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act,” the bill, the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act of 2015, H.R. 2663, would help renewable projects that are “hampered by bureaucratic red tape,” Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said at a July 13 hearing held by the subcommittee.

Lamborn was joined by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., the ranking member of the subcommittee, who said the bill would create a revenue stream for the royalties from renewable projects on federal land to flow to state and local governments. The bill would address what he called an uneven playing field for renewables compared to oil and gas projects.

“States get half the money from oil and gas developments within their borders but they receive nothing from solar and wind,” Lowenthal said. “This gives state officials a strong incentive to support oil and gas projects, but no such incentive exists for solar and wind projects on federal lands.”

H.R. 2663 has more than 60 co-sponsors from both parties, from Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has called fears over global warming a “scam,” to Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who has been a strong supporter of regulations on hydraulic fracturing.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has already approved geothermal, solar and wind projects totaling 16,335 MW, but there are still 20.6 million acres of public land with unapproved wind potential and more than 19 million acres with unapproved solar potential, according to the subcommittee.

A primary reason there have not been more wind and solar development on federal lands is the arduous and lengthy permitting process, according to the testimony of several witnesses at the subcommittee. “There is no reason for the BLM to take several years to permit a project when our county offices can issue permits in weeks,” Mohave County, Ariz., Supervisor Buster Johnson said.

The bill would require the DOI to review renewable energy developments with programmatic environmental impact statements that already exist for different types of renewable generation.

According to Josh Nordquist, director of business development for Ormat Technologies Inc., one of the biggest developers of geothermal projects, this change would end a duplicative process in which companies like Ormat have to conduct a second review under NEPA before they can start exploring potential geothermal developments. “This is a narrow, common-sense strategy to shorten development timelines,” Nordquist said in his testimony.

Federal timelines are particularly important for geothermal power. About 90% of the known geothermal resources that could be economically developed in the U.S. are located on federally managed lands, according to Nordquist. The Geothermal Energy Association, the trade organization for that industry, also supports H.R. 2663.

A Senate version of the bill, S. 1407, was introduced by Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev.; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Jon Tester, D-Mont., in May 2015, and supported by groups like the American Wind Energy Association. There has been no legislative action on that bill since hearings were held last year.