By Mike Gorrell - The Salt Lake Tribune
Westerners of all political persuasions, ages and genders would like to see the federal government return royalty revenue from solar- and wind-power operations on public lands to the communities close to those facilities.
That was the conclusion of a bipartisan poll conducted for The Wilderness Society, which supports three fairly similar bills before Congress that would earmark royalties collected from wind and solar projects on public lands to three funds — one for habitat conservation, another for impacts on states and counties, and the third for the federal permitting process.
Chase Huntley, The Wilderness Society's clean energy policy director, said Wednesday the poll of 1,945 voters in 11 Western states showed that the reinvestment of royalty revenues would enhance the responsible production of renewable-energy resources on public lands.
"American voters want to see Congress move forward with bipartisan legislation that will pay back local communities, wildlife and the land they all depend upon," he said in a teleconference.
The idea is patterned after the Federal Mineral Lease Act of 1920, in which lease holders on public lands pay a royalty to the federal government for excavating coal and other non-metal minerals. Half of those royalties then are returned to the states, based on their level of production, to help mitigate the local impacts of ener gy and mineral development.
In Utah, the state Permanent Community Impact Fund Board distributes about one-third of the state's allocation to the counties and cities closest to where mining occurs.
While that royalty program has been in place for almost a century, no regulations provide comparable outlays for renewable-energy sources. The federal government keeps all of those royalties. To gauge Western sentiment on the idea of changing the system, The Wilderness Society hired two pollsters — Republican-leaning Bellwether Research and Democratic-oriented Peak Campaigns — to gain a broad-based perspective.
Pollsters Mark Mehringer of Peak Campaigns and Christine Matthews of Bellwether Research determined 73 percent of Westerners supported production of wind and solar energy on public lands. Although Democrats favored it more (84 percent), Matthews noted that 67 percent of Republicans and independents alike were supportive.
Of the possible uses for royalty revenue, 85 percent of respondents favored restoring fish and wildlife habitat in impacted areas, 81 percent wanted money set aside for parks, refuges and conservation areas, and 72 percent supported creating new fishing and hunting areas to replace impacted areas.
The poll, taken in August, has a margin of error of 3.1 percent.
The Wilderness Society's issue has support from Dan Gibbs, a commissioner in Summit County, Colo.
"When you find common sense and bipartisan support [for an issue], you should move forward," he said. "It's an investment locally when you can combine diversifying your energy needs and working hard to protect natural resources."