Big Oil wants “fast track” back, Salazar’s got responsible renewables in mind

Solar system in Colorado. Photo by Dave Parsons, Courtesy NREL.

Earlier this month, President of the American Petroleum Institute (API) Jack Gerard sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stating his “concern” with the fact that the Department of the Interior is using some of its stimulus money to fast-track the permitting process for 32 renewable energy projects that will be shovel-ready by December 2010.

Mr. Gerard’s letter bemoans that the fossil fuels industry did not receive stimulus funds to fast track its oil and gas drilling. It goes on to criticize Secretary Salazar for his efforts to restore balance to the Department’s energy program and Salazar’s bold vision for prioritizing climate-friendly renewables above dirty fossil energy.

This letter and its attack on Secretary Salazar’s strong track record to date are simply baseless, and demonstrate the insatiable covetousness of an industry that has pocketed $72 billion in federal subsidies since 2001.

First, the oil and gas industry did indeed qualify for plenty in stimulus money. In fact, the Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy Research and Development program received $3.39 billion of stimulus funds, which can be used for oil and gas development activities. Clearly, the administration has not forgotten about the oil and gas industry.

Second, although Gerard contrasts the Interior Department’s fast-tracked renewables development with the appropriately “cautious” approach to oil and natural gas development, the Interior Department is also carefully scrutinizing renewable energy projects. Indeed, this administration’s attitude towards all forms of energy development on public lands is far more reasonable than that of the previous administration’s approach to oil and natural gas development. The Bush administration distributed more than 35,000 permits to drill for oil in gas, with 5,000 permits rushed out in its last year alone.

The Obama administration has resisted similarly rushing headlong to issue renewable energy permits, preferring instead to conduct the appropriate environmental studies to site projects in the right places. This is the guiding principle behind DOI’s 24 “Solar Energy Study Areas,” which determined suitable zones for renewable energy development based on the solar potential but also screened out sensitive landscapes. The Wilderness Society and our conservation partners are working to ensure that wind and geothermal development goes to the right places, too, so that our transition to a clean energy economy does not come at the expense of our nation’s iconic wildlands.

Interior is working to put several pilot wind, solar, and geothermal projects on a fast-track to ensure these promising energy sources, starved of funding and attention for the last eight years, can access the money Congress set aside.

The previous administration’s energy legacy of actively ignoring renewable energy potential has dug us into a deep hole. Over the course of the Bush administration, the Bureau of Land Management received over 125 applications for solar permits on public lands, and not a single one even began moving through the process. Wind and geothermal developers were treated with equal disregard.

Despite the fretting of Mr. Gerard and the allies of our energy past, thousands of Westerners whose lands and communities have borne the brunt of the drilling boom are hoping that the heyday of unchecked oil and gas development in this country is over. Here’s to a new era for energy development on the public lands, in which a clean energy economy is prioritized and the Department of the Interior ensures that renewable energy development and protection of our public lands go hand in hand.

photo: Solar system in Colorado. Photo by Dave Parsons, Courtesy NREL.