New BLM mitigation aims to promote development in energy zones

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Obama administration has taken a major step toward developing commercial-scale solar projects in specially designated zones in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.

The Bureau of Land Management today announced that it has completed regional mitigation strategies for four formally designated solar energy zones (SEZs) covering 25,000 acres for the Dry Lake Valley North SEZ in southeast Nevada and 8,500 acres for three other SEZs in Arizona.

In addition, BLM unveiled a draft regional mitigation strategy for three SEZs covering about 33,200 acres of federal lands in the solar-resource-rich San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.

The regional mitigation strategies identify the potential impacts of building large-scale solar projects in the SEZs and then outline specific mitigation steps — and the estimated costs — developers can take to compensate for impacts.

The regional mitigation plans in Nevada and Arizona, and the draft plan in Colorado, are expected to be released online later today.

The mitigation strategies are designed to help the industry identify acceptable mitigation strategies as compensation for any unavoidable damage to natural resources that result from building in an SEZ, thus giving developers more certainty about total project costs.

Projects developed within the boundaries of SEZs undergo a faster, streamlined permitting process.

“The BLM is committed to facilitating responsible solar energy development on public lands in the right places and in the right ways through implementation of the Western Solar Plan,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement.

SEZs are areas that were analyzed under a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) that was finalized in 2012 and established the Western Solar Plan, which includes a total of 19 SEZs in six states where commercial-scale solar projects are encouraged.

“These strategies represent a win-win for the environment and renewable energy development by taking stock of potential impacts upfront and identifying appropriate offsets, saving time and preventing costly do-overs late in the process,” Kornze said.

A proven tool

The regional mitigation strategy approach has proved so far to be successful at enticing developers to propose projects in the SEZs.

BLM’s regional mitigation strategy for the six parcels inside the Dry Lake SEZ covering 3,083 acres in southern Nevada was a major factor in the solar industry successfully bidding to develop large-scale projects in the zone.

The strategy for the Dry Lake SEZ, among other things, established a $1,836-per-acre mitigation fee for companies that develop projects in the zone, with the money going toward the restoration of lands in the nearby Gold Butte Area of Critical Environmental Concern or four other environmentally sensitive areas.

Projects proposed by the three winning bidders were the first approved by BLM last year through an expedited review process designed to entice developers to locate projects within one of the zones, where the energy potential is high but natural and cultural resource conflicts are low (E&ENews PM, June 1, 2015).

The issue of landscape-level mitigation came up during a recent Senate hearing examining the Interior Department’s $13.4 billion fiscal 2017 budget request.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, questioned Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on the need for landscape-level mitigation, particularly as outlined in a memo last year by President Obama calling for a new “net benefit goal” for the leaders of the resource management agencies.

He asked the secretaries and administrators of these agencies to “adopt a clear and consistent approach for avoidance and minimization of, and compensatory mitigation for, the impacts of their activities and the projects they approve” (Greenwire, Nov. 3, 2015).

Michael Connor, Interior deputy secretary, cited the Dry Lake SEZ regional mitigation strategy as a “perfect example” of how taking a landscape-level approach to mitigating development on public lands is the right thing to do.

“We identified the corridors of development, the appropriate mitigation standards that should apply there,” Connor said at the hearing. “We worked with the companies in taking the environmental analysis that used to take 18, 24 months and taking it down to six months to complete those environmental analyses.”

The SEZs and regional mitigation strategies are a major component of the Obama administration’s efforts to promote non-hydropower renewable energy development on federal lands.

The Obama administration since 2009 has approved 57 commercial-scale solar, wind and geothermal power projects covering more than 305,000 acres of federal lands across the West. All told, the 57 projects would have the capacity to produce more than 15,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 5.1 million homes and solidify renewable energy as a significant part of the nation’s energy portfolio for years to come.

Jewell said during the budget hearing today that Interior is on schedule to meet Obama’s goal for the agency to permit projects capable of producing 20,000 MW of electricity by 2020.

“Solar energy development is a promising resource for Western states and counties,” Kornze said, “and the BLM is committed to moving forward with smart development of this resource.”