Will clean energy light up this year's political agenda?

White House

afagen, Flickr

Climate change and domestic energy production promise to lead this year’s political dialogue as two issues that are deeply imbedded in America’s consciousness and legislative agenda. Right now, many policymakers and environmental organizations are looking back to 2013 to gain perspective of what’s to come in the year ahead.

Obama's Climate Action Plan

Climate change policy and the imminent global climate crisis framed much of last year’s discussion about America’s renewable energy future. In June, President Barack Obama stepped forward to announce his administration’s new Climate Action Plan, which would legislate immediate action to curb the fossil fuel emissions that are stoking our warming climate.

Strong environmental regulatory standards would allow both the energy and environmental sectors to strike a balance between their priorities.

With renewable energy proliferating exponentially (wind energy lead the charge last year as the nation’s number one source of new energy to hit the grid), clean energy technology will occupy a large portion of the president’s climate strategy.

As one of his first climate initiatives, the president set a goal for doubling the amount of renewable energy projects that exist on America’s public lands. Many of these federally managed landscapes are just beginning to host large scale energy development projects. While this aggressive energy strategy is a positive step toward lessening our dependence on fossil fuels, it necessitates the implementation of clear industry standards that will help regulators and industry players protect the integrity of America’s wildlands. Strong environmental regulatory standards would allow both the energy and environmental sectors to strike a balance between their priorities.

The Wilderness Society has lead the effort to protect our most sensitive lands from reckless energy development, and will continue to guide new projects to areas that have been evaluated for major resource conflicts.

Interior Department announces landscape-level energy projects

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced her first Secretarial Order (SO) in Oct. of last year. Secretary Jewell’s order called for targeted planning, smarter research and better results when pursuing development on public lands. Jewell pledged to lead the Interior in a much-needed initiative to facilitate large, landscape level energy projects that will also preserve crucial wildlife habitats that are protected by America’s public lands system.

Lake Erie breezes makes Steel Winds the largest wind powered brownfield redevelopment in the country. Photo: Liese Dart

While seemingly commonsense, this approach represents a new way of doing business on federal lands. Balancing land conservation and energy goals will require a comprehensive effort from the Interior, and Jewell’s creation of a new task force is an important first step in the overhaul of existing energy and environmental policies.

Clean energy's Congressional cheerleaders

While our Congressional leaders earned themselves the reputation of “least productive Congress in American history” in terms of lawmaking, several senators and representatives pushed forward on the renewable energy front by introducing the following bills which would reform and proliferate our country's clean energy industry:

  • Sens. Mark Udall (D-CO), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a set of bills last year that would establish the first ever national Renewable Energy Standard in the U.S., and would also require 25 percent of the nation’s energy to come from renewable energy sources by 2025. A push for renewable energy, such as wind and solar, would also create hundreds of thousands of jobs—over 300,000 by some estimates. If passed, this comprehensive legislation would significantly move the dial away from fossil fuel dependence and toward a clean energy future.
  • Within Senator Markey’s spending bill is a game-changing clause for urban communities and the renewable energy sector. The senator endorsed the development of lands called “brownfields,” which are abandoned former industrial zones that are promising for renewable energy projects based on their lack of ecological or conservation value. Prioritizing contaminated lands like brownfields for development will help to preserve the integrity of our wildlands, and should continue to be an important tenet of America’s renewable energy strategy.
  • A bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would modernize the leasing process for renewable energy development on public lands. The bill, introduced by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) in the Senate and Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ), would also contribute money earned from renewable energy leasing project to states, counties and valuable conservation initiatives.
  • Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) charged ahead on a bipartisan bill that would force utilities to address energy consumption in the U.S. by promoting incentives that would motivate the energy industry to increase their own efficiency. While renewable energy is vital to our energy future, reducing our overall consumption also reduce the amount of land needed to produce energy in the first place.

A renewable energy future?

In 2014, we hope to see the nation’s first successful solar auction on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management hopes to lease large parcels of land in low-conflict areas, such as brownfields, to solar energy developers, as they have traditionally done for oil and gas developers. The Obama administration appears eager to utilize brownfields as a way to boost renewable energy development in urban areas, and has made it clear that these public lands will play a key role in the fight against climate change.

While 2013 marked a year of significant progress for renewable energy sources, it most importantly set the stage for a legacy of clean energy investment and fossil fuel independence. But a greener future can only be successful with proper implementation and Congressional support. America’s leaders must follow through on the promises they made to increase renewable energy production on public lands and mitigate ecologically-harmful development.