7 things the Obama Administration can do to improve renewable energy on public lands

The Desert Sunlight project, a solar facility in Riverside, Calif. Careful siting is important for large scale renewable energy projects to ensure minimal impacts in land and wildlife.
TWS staff
The Obama Administration is making progress on renewable energy. Our report outlines what more they can do.

Since Obama took office in 2009, great progress has been made in wind, solar and geothermal deployment, with millions of homes now being powered by renewable energy. While the Administration has worked to advance renewable energy development responsibly, this growth has also put a demand on our public lands in places that could put wildlife and wildlands at risk. Finding a balance between energy and conservation requires continued leadership from the Interior Department and American communities.

The new Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, brings fresh perspective to the administration's effort to create a sustainable program for renewable energy on public lands. Secretary Jewell can help build on the progress of past Secretary Ken Salazar’s team and continue to support the President’s push to move America toward cleaner sources of energy. 

Our new “blueprint for action” report identifies areas that need the focus of the Obama administration to build a responsible program for renewable energy. Here is a snapshot of seven areas the Administration can do to get us to a clean energy future: 

1. Accurately account for climate benefits and impacts from ALL energy development on public lands. A study commissioned by The Wilderness Society found that nearly 23% of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions originate from fossil fuel development on public lands.  To find solutions for limiting the impacts of global warming, the administration should produce an accurate accounting of global warming emissions resulting from Interior Department activities, including ultimate emissions from all energy resources extracted from public lands or waters. 

2. Guide wind development to appropriate areas through landscape-level planning.  Landscape-scale pre-screening of areas where wind development can be accommodated with minimal environmental conflicts should be the focus of BLM’s limited planning dollars, while also identifying areas which are inappropriate for development and should be excluded from that use.

3. Balance responsible renewable energy development with meaningful conservation designations. This can be done through plans like the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a California renewable energy plan intended to provide effective protection and conservation of desert ecosystems while allowing for the appropriate development of renewable energy projects on public and private lands. The planning process for DRECP will allocate public and private lands to renewable energy development and conservation over a 22.5 million acre swath of the California Desert, of which approximately 12.5 million acres are public lands. The plan will govern land management of the California desert over a period of 30 years.

Photo: A uranium  mine  in Questa, NM is now home to Chevron’s solar farm.  This project was built on already degraded superfund site, and reduced the demand for undisturbed lands in the area. Photo: EPA.

4. Successfully implement the BLM solar program with a focus on development within designated zones and use mitigation efforts to fully offset impacts. Last fall, the Interior Department took several historic steps towards changing the way energy is developed by committing to a zone-based approach for solar energy development through the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or BLM solar program. While these plans provide an excellent toolset for managing renewable energy on public lands, rigorous attention to implementation by the BLM will be required to realize the benefits they offer.

5. Implement legal settlement on federal transmission corridors. Successful implementation of a review of transmission corridors across public lands will protect sensitive wildlands and wildlife areas bisected by the original designations, and will deliberately serve renewable energy zones under development by the BLM and other state and regional processes by thoughtfully adding, editing and deleting corridors.

6. Finalize wind and solar program rulemaking. Ultimately, a formal wind and solar energy program will require undertaking a formal rulemaking to clearly articulate the legal and analytical framework, and to issue binding requirements on the agency and project applicants.

7. Secure additional authority to enhance support for clean energy. Congress must provide the department with the full set of tools to establish a robust, responsible fiscal system to develop clean energy projects on public lands. The department should have the authority to charge a royalty per unit of electricity produced. In creating its fee structure, the department currently lacks statutory authority to charge royalties and, thus, resorts to charging annual rents that amount to a clumsy proxy for a production royalty.

By capitalizing on these opportunities, the Obama administration and the Interior Department can create the future envisioned by the administration and Americans across the country - one in which we realize the true potential of the renewable energy resources on our public lands, and in which conservation of our spectacular wildlands is on equal ground with development.

Renewable Energy Blueprint (Print Version) by The Wilderness Society

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