March 11, 2013, marks a major milestone on the path toward creating a sound program for renewable energy on our public lands. It was four years ago that the Interior Department, under the leadership of outgoing Secretary Ken Salazar, formally declared renewable energy a priority for the public lands in Secretarial Order 3285.
The Order was a dramatic step to correct decades of inattention and inactivity toward developing renewable energy as a major component of the nation’s energy mix. We passed the four-year anniversary of this landmark in the same workman-like manner with which the lead agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has approached this task- with little fanfare. But there is no mistaking the impact that these reforms are having on the renewable industry and our nation’s ability to transition to cleaner, more efficient sources of energy.
In a report released yesterday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office- the investigative arm of Congress- found major improvements in key aspects of the BLM’s performance on wind and solar. Most notably, the average time frame for permitting wind and solar projects has dropped significantly, from about four years for applications submitted in 2006 to one and a half years for applications submitted in 2009. This is due in large part to the attention placed on agency staffing needs under the Secretarial Order.
For example, the GAO found that the BLM tripled the number of staff working on wind and solar from 32 in 2010 to 96 in 2012. And budgets for permitting and managing wind and solar on public lands have also increased from $8 million to $16.5 million. Funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service has also increased, although only modestly. However, under the sequester these agencies will take a significant hit and House lawmakers proposed to further slash funding for these agencies earlier this week.
The audit also found that BLM has made great strides to address the tremendous backlog of applications so that the most viable projects in the most appropriate areas can proceed. All of the 29 geothermal applications submitted were reviewed and 25 were approved. But more remarkable is that 416 applications have been filed for wind or solar facilities on public lands just since July 2005. This tidal wave of applications amounted to what has been called a ‘renewables gold rush’ – suggesting that many seeking to stake a claim in the new energy economy were simply speculating.
Helping to reduce the negative impact of speculative applications bogging down the system, over the past three years a large number applications were either withdrawn or denied, chiefly because of the lack of technical or financial ability to proceed. All told, more than 60% of applications have been cleared out of the way so that serious proposals can move ahead.
The Interior Department has also implemented policy advancements that will yield continued improvement into the future. The audit calls out several key policy accomplishments:
- Focused attention given to so-called “priority projects” helps the agency respond to applications most likely to be approved, rather than just responding to the first-in-line. The BLM works to filter pending applications using screening criteria, including managing against sensitive natural resources.
- The audit also calls out new agency “guidance” for wind and solar, citing the agency’s relative inexperience with these technologies.
- Finally, the GAO pointed to BLM’s western solar energy plan and formal coordination across federal agencies and with state and local governments.
Local governments have played a significant role in the success of renewable energy. Recently, Secretary Salazar was joined by California Governor Jerry Brown at a press event highlighting the accomplishments to date, made possible by a coordinated effort in California.
It is important to celebrate the progress to date, but this four-year anniversary coincides with an important change in leadership at the top of the Department of Interior.
The incoming secretary will have the opportunity to build upon the remarkable effort made to deliver on President Obama’s promise to the nation to do more to combat climate change and protect our natural treasures. While efforts to establish a focused renewable energy program have come a long way in a short period of time, important efforts are still ongoing that must be completed. Fully implementing these needed reforms will take focused action.
The future for renewable energy on our public lands is being written now, with several chapters already penned. Focused attention is needed to integrate conservation science and energy planning into a long-term renewable energy program that strikes the appropriate balance between responsible development and natural resource protection. The next chapters in our renewable energy story will be just as important as the accomplishments made over the past few.