Interior can ensure renewables development for years to come — report

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Obama administration has an unprecedented opportunity in the next four years to expand renewable energy, according to a new report by the Wilderness Society that lays out recommendations for building a lasting policy framework to ensure President Obama’s clean energy goals are met in an environmentally responsible way.

The Wilderness Society’s “blueprint for action,” set to be released today, applauds the work already done by the administration to promote renewables development on federal lands. But the report concludes that “long-term success requires a relentless focus on cementing those gains and tackling remaining challenges.”

Titled “Smart Steps to Establish a Responsible Program for Renewable Energy on Public Lands,” the report outlines seven steps that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell should take to ensure renewable energy projects are properly sited, allowing green energy sources to displace fossil fuels while ensuring sensitive habitat is protected and damaging impacts are properly mitigated.

“The blueprint is really about the opportunities that both the administration and the Interior Department have in going forward and cementing the gains they’ve made and attaining the clean energy future the president has outlined and the public supports,” said Alex Daue, a Wilderness Society renewable energy associate in Denver and one of the report’s three authors.

Most of the recommendations touch on completing goals outlined in March 2009 by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in his first secretarial order, which made the production and delivery of renewable energy a top priority.

The Wilderness Society report recommends that Interior finalize a rule by the end of 2014 amending the Code of Federal Regulations to include Salazar’s first secretarial order, as well as other rules and orders that were adopted to ensure that renewables development on public land moved forward. Doing so would “significantly reduce uncertainty and agency vulnerability to legal challenge,” according to the report.

The report also calls for expanding on work that’s been done so far, such as fully implementing the strategies outlined in the solar programmatic environmental impact statement, including focusing solar development within the solar energy zones in six Western states that were identified as having low wildlife values.

But the group also calls on Interior to follow through on its stated commitment to develop a Wyoming Wind and Transmission Study this year that would, among other things, “identify areas with sensitive natural or cultural resources that should be excluded from development.” If successful, the same approach should be taken in Oregon and Nevada, which like Wyoming have good wind resources and have been targeted by the industry.

The report also recommends that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service remain focused on complying with a legal settlement last year with the Wilderness Society, Center for Biological Diversity and others challenging a Bush-era electricity transmission corridor plan covering more than 6,000 acres in 11 Western states. BLM and the Forest Service agreed to revise the corridors to appropriately account for environmental impacts and to better incorporate renewables development in the plan (EnergyWire, July 5, 2012).

BLM is set in July to issue a memorandum of understanding outlining the parameters of corridor review and expected revisions, Daue said.

Most of the recommended actions in the latest report can be achieved through administrative rulemaking or secretarial orders.

Congress, however, would need to authorize a recommendation authorizing BLM to charge a royalty per unit of electricity produced, and to allow it to “reinvest revenue derived from the development of federally-controlled energy resources in conservation programs that help mitigate the adverse impacts that accompany such development,” the report said.

“The past few years have taught us a number of lessons that should help guide actions needed now to establish a program which protects America’s shared lands while moving us into an energy future that takes advantage of our abundant renewable resources,” Daue said.

For its part, the Interior Department says it takes the Wilderness Society report and recommendations seriously.

“We welcome the recommendations and the continuing dialogue on how the Interior Department can continue to grow our domestic energy portfolio through thoughtful, landscape-level planning when it comes to renewable energy on our nation’s public lands,” said Jessica Kershaw, an Interior spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

The report comes as the Obama administration is making unprecedented efforts to expand development of solar, wind and geothermal power on federal lands across the West.

The administration since 2009 has approved 37 solar, wind and geothermal power projects covering roughly 240,000 acres of federal land with a total capacity, if built, to power nearly 4 million homes.

So successful has the effort been that Interior last year announced it had already met a goal established in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to approve roughly 10,000 megawatts of non-hydropower renewable energy projects on federal land by 2015.

The administration now has a chance to ensure that policies and procedures are in place to drive responsible renewables development for years to come, according to the Wilderness Society.

“How the administration responds to these opportunities and challenges will determine whether its remarkable first-term successes can be translated into a lasting, long-term framework for how renewable energy on public lands can be developed in the right ways and in the right places,” Daue said. “Secretary Jewell is bringing a new perspective and fresh ideas to the Interior Department that will build on the foundation laid by former Secretary Salazar.”