Congressional hearing should spur action to improve renewable energy permitting on public lands

There are a number of opportunities to establish predictable rules of the road for clean energy resources on public lands.

Photo by Randy Montoya, Sandia Labs

Members of a congressional natural resources subcommittee held an oversight hearing this week to discuss wind and solar energy development on public lands.

While the subject of the hearing zeroed in on whether the Bureau of Land Management is doing enough to ensure bonds to pay for restoring project sites from renewable energy companies are up to date, it underscored the significant progress that has been made—and the key opportunities that remain—to improve how wind and solar energy is permitted on public lands.

Report raises concerns

The Government Accountability Office recently found that wind and solar projects on public lands are not adequately bonded, potentially leaving taxpayers on the hook for removing infrastructure and restoring the land. Fortunately there has never been an instance where a wind or solar project was abandoned, let alone poisoned nearby water supplies or harmed the land, leading some lawmakers to question the need for this hearing.

Indeed, the most interesting take away was that both Chairman Louis Gohmert (R-TX) and Ranking Member Debbie Dingell (D-MI) agreed to a similar oversight hearing on the increasingly common practice in the coal industry of “self-bonding” coal mines that effectively leaves large portions of potential clean-up costs uninsured. According to news reports, the four largest coal companies have about $2.7 billion in clean-up costs covered by self-bonding.

Despite the focus of the hearing, the GAO report raised an important issue: we must do better to establish predictable rules of the road for these new energy resources on public lands. The BLM agreed with the GAO’s recommendations and is working to set appropriate bond amounts and firming up other key program elements in a final wind and solar leasing rulemaking expected later this year.

Wind and solar leasing rulemaking offers solutions

When completed, the BLM’s rulemaking will create the first formal set of rules for wind or solar projects on public lands. The reach of these rules extend well beyond bonding. The rulemaking is also needed to establish a standard leasing process for wind and solar energy that will promote the use of low-conflict areas for development.

The Wilderness Society recently teamed up with Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife to address these issues in a report called A Brighter Future: Shifting the Way We Develop Renewable Energy on Public Lands. The concept proposed builds off of the successful leasing example set in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, where projects were recently approved in half the average time of previous solar energy projects on public lands. Finalizing this rulemaking would provide permitting certainty and efficiencies for companies and protect natural resources.

Fortunately, unlike coal, oil and natural gas, there is not the same urgent need to modernize the bonding program—there are not millions of dollars in unreclaimed wind or solar project sites that taxpayers will ultimately end up footing the bill for. If the Administration finishes their rulemaking this year, not only will they solve the reclamation issue before it ever becomes a real problem, they will be drastically improving how projects are permitted.

Congress can move forward bi-partisan Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act

Congress is poised to help improve how wind and solar energy is developed on public lands too. As Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) raised at the hearing this week, the bi-partisan Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act (H.R. 2663) would help improve permitting and support the identification of priority areas for development that are high in renewable energy potential and low in environmental conflict.

The legislation is led by Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Polis and is awaiting a hearing. Congress can break down the partisan divide that has traditionally occurred around renewable energy issues and move forward this important bill.

Wind and solar energy is growing on public lands, but as we saw this week, key opportunities remain to finalize the ground rules for how renewable energy is developed.