Bi-partisan renewable energy bill advances in Congress

Congress has never passed a bill addressing how renewable energy development should be managed on public lands. That may change this Congress if the bi-partisan Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act can make its way to the president’s desk.

The legislation was just heard in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee along with a host of other bills being considered for inclusion in a comprehensive energy bill. The Senate bill (S.1407) was recently introduced by Senators Heller (R-NV), Heinrich (D-NM), Risch (R-ID) and Tester (D-MT). The House companion was introduced last week in similar bi-partisan fashion, led by Representatives Gosar (R-AZ), Polis (D-CO), Heck (R-NV), Thompson (D-CA), Franks (R-AZ) and Ruiz (D-CA).

What the bill does

The legislation, aimed at promoting renewable energy development in appropriate places on public lands, offers additional environmental benefits—a portion of revenue collected from wind and solar projects is directed to conservation activities. The bill:

  • Directs the Department of the Interior (DOI) to establish areas for wind, solar and geothermal energy where they will prioritize development, similar to what the Western Solar Plan did in creating solar energy zones. Priority areas must have access to transmission and avoid or minimize conflict with wildlife habitat, recreation and other uses of public land;
  • Directs DOI to establish a royalty for wind and solar energy as is already the practice for geothermal energy and oil and gas drilling to encourage timely production and ensure a fair return to American taxpayers;
  • Requires DOI to coordinate renewable energy planning with states, tribes and local governments and gives land managers the resources they need to plan for and permit renewable energy; and
  • Dedicates a portion of the fees and royalties collected from wind and solar projects in the following way:
    • 25% to the state where development takes place
    • 25% to the county where development takes place
    • 15% to more efficiently process renewable energy applications
    • 35% into a fund to support fish and wildlife habitat restoration and improve access to public lands for outdoor recreation

By creating a conservation fund, renewable energy will not only provide the pollution-free energy many states demand, it will contribute to improving the quality of our parks, rivers and trails.

Why now?

Coal, oil and gas have been produced on public lands for decades. But in recent years, DOI has taken significant steps to establish a renewable energy program for public lands. Fifty-five renewable energy projects have been approved since 2009, totaling 14,599 megawatts of new power. These projects are creating jobs, driving innovation, and will help supply Western markets with clean renewable power for decades to come.

Creating a renewable energy program hasn’t been without hiccups though. The initial project-by-project approach to permitting left backlogged wind and solar applications, slowed permitting and created needless environmental conflict.

Progress has slowly been made to shift to a better model. The Bureau of Land Management finalized its Western Solar Plan in 2012 to incentivize development in low-conflict solar energy zones. Just last week the first projects were approved in the Dry Lake solar energy zone in southern Nevada under this new plan in less than 10 months, which is less than half the time it has taken DOI to approve similar projects using a project-by-project approach that merely responds to development interest without the benefit of prescreen zones.

Nevertheless, siting conflict over projects continues. The decision by BLM to move forward with a controversial grandfathered solar project in California on Friday shows that more work needs to be done to plan for ‘smart from the start’ development. The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development can help build off the success of the Western Solar Plan by supporting planning and incentivizing development in low-conflict, priority areas.

Congress’s time to shine

Congress is poised to set renewable energy up for success on public lands while simultaneously enhancing conservation investments. By passing the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, Congress will provide DOI with new tools needed to develop renewable energy that will more efficiently and effectively permit renewable energy on public lands without conflict.

You can find the testimony The Wilderness Society submitted to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee here.