An AP investigation at the beginning of September found that speculation—the assumption of business risk in hopes of making profits—in applications for solar development on public lands is rampant, and has greatly contributed to the BLM’s inability to get solar projects built. In fact, the investigation found that a Goldman Sachs subsidiary has submitted applications for half of the land in Nevada for which applications have been received, but has no intention of developing the sites.
The reason that all of these speculative applications were allowed to get through and be considered legitimate is that the BLM currently does not have any kind of program for prioritizing good applications for renewable energy development. Applications are accepted on a first come first served basis, and the agency has no organized criteria for why certain projects begin to move through the environmental review process while others stay in the application phase.
Everyone—even the BLM official quoted in the AP story—thinks that this is a problem and that legitimate applications are adversely affected by speculation. But what’s to be done?
We’ve got some ideas. First, BLM should issue clear written guidance for how and where renewable energy applications are prioritized. The Obama Administration inherited a public lands system with over 200 applications but no solar program, no experience with permitting solar, and no way to prioritize good applications. Secretary Salazar should focus on putting policies in place to ensure that economically viable and environmentally responsible projects are built, not just that permits are received and processed. The program will help guide BLM in selecting projects from legitimate developers in the most appropriate places
Next, BLM must also develop a program for the long term to address the backlog of permit applications and transition to a lease-based system on lands suitable for development. This program should include clear guidelines on what places are appropriate for renewable energy, so that developers are able to secure locations with the best chance of economic and environmental success, rather than spending time filing applications which will never see the light of day or will get caught up in controversy. Senator Reid’s legislation is a critical part of this solution that builds on BLM’s existing authority with strong provisions that safeguard both natural and fiscal resources.
In the meantime, BLM should focus on its Solar Energy Study Areas. They are a great first step, and we are working to help ensure they succeed as part of the solar program for public lands. Without more of this kind of leadership, we are truly gambling away our clean energy future and adding to the threats that face our public lands.