Hearing on energy infrastructure highlights need for smart approach

Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs, flickr

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on American energy infrastructure.

Experts and politicians on both sides of the aisle acknowledge the need to improve infrastructure in the U.S., and numerous pieces of legislation have been introduced in recent years to advance energy infrastructure in particular. The hearing was held to help members of Congress understand the opportunities and challenges for doing so.

At The Wilderness Society, we recognize that our public lands have long hosted and facilitated energy infrastructure development and that they will continue to play an important role. That said, some places are just too special for development of any kind and must be protected for future generations.

And as Congress and the Trump Administration consider infrastructure updates that could affect public lands, it is crucial that the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies tasked with managing our public lands continue to use commonsense methods that protect our natural heritage.

Though federal regulatory policies were blamed for long permitting times for transmission lines  and other infrastructure during Tuesday’s hearing, we know that the only real way to increase permitting efficiency is by using a smart-from-the start approach. 

“Smart from the start” means focusing development of renewable energy, transmission lines and other energy infrastructure in high-potential, low-conflict areas where projects are much more likely to succeed. Pursuing this approach means the federal government can better avoid costly and time-consuming fights over inappropriately sited projects that could harm wildlands and the recreational opportunities, like hunting and fishing, they provide.

The proposed budget that President Trump released today underscores his priority for “fossil fuels development above all else” on public lands, increasing funding for energy development while slashing the Department of the Interior’s overall budget by 12%. Proposing such massive reductions to the agency tasked with balancing multiple uses on public lands cuts the very programs that have made smarter, more responsible energy development possible.  The budget documents also make no mention of renewable energy development, marking an uncertain future for the BLM’s vital renewable energy and transmission programs.  Despite these troubling signals from the President, Congress should ensure the continued success of these programs by maintaining or increasing their funding.

Renewable energy growth and potential on public lands

As Ethan Zindler from Bloomberg New Energy Finance stated in the Senate hearing, the continued rise of renewable energy is inevitable. For example, last year the U.S. installed more solar capacity than any other energy type. And in 2015 the number of U.S. jobs in solar energy overtook those in oil and natural gas extraction for the first time. Demand for renewable energy is high because of the many economic, environmental and energy security benefits it provides.

On public lands, renewable energy development has also grown significantly. Project approvals have increased by over 1,000 percent in the last 10 years, and the approved wind, solar and geothermal projects have the capacity to power over five million homes when built.

There is great potential for additional renewables development on western public lands—and the public strongly supports this. A recent poll found that 80 percent of western voters support more wind and solar development on public lands.

But to engender further responsible growth, Congress and the Trump administration must support the BLM’s renewable energy program, which must continue to prioritize development in low-conflict areas.

Finding responsible solutions for transmission lines and pipelines

As Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) acknowledged at the hearing, it is well known that transmission development is a key component for increasing renewable energy.

The BLM, Forest Service and Department of Energy are currently creating more opportunities for responsible transmission and pipeline development on public lands by refining their system of West-wide Energy Corridors, an undertaking mentioned by Senator Cortez Masto (D-NV) during the hearing. This process will help increase efficiency and coordination among federal agencies for permitting projects, which was one of the primary recommendations made by many of the witnesses and members during the hearing.

Designated as priority pathways for transmission line and pipeline development, the network of West-wide Energy Corridors crisscrosses nearly 6,000 miles of western federal public lands. Though the refinements currently underway offer real opportunities for success, the history of the West-wide Energy Corridors should offer a cautionary tale to those who seek regulatory reforms that could go beyond streamlining to cutting corners and running roughshod over laws designed to protect the public and our environment.

Congress called for the designation of the West-wide Energy Corridors in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, but when federal agencies finalized the corridors four years later, conservation groups, together with one Colorado county, challenged them in court. In their lawsuit, these groups showed that the process had not adequately included public involvement, and that the final corridors crossed sensitive lands and did not connect areas with high renewable energy potential. The settlement agreement reached in 2012 required the agencies to refine the corridors to address these issues and ensure the corridors achieve the goal of facilitating needed infrastructure development while protecting the environment and local communities.

To do so, the agencies are gathering input from utilities, developers, stakeholders and local experts to find viable pathways for projects, considering pinch points, identifying ways to avoid environmental impacts and considering local community concerns that, if left unaddressed, could delay the development of needed infrastructure. 

Where we go from here

One of the major points of emphasis in the Senate hearing Tuesday was the importance of funding that will continue to advance research and development, infrastructure and clean energy and maintain America’s role as a global leader in this field. 

That means that Congress and the Trump Administration must maintain or increase funding for the BLM’s smart renewable energy program and advanced infrastructure planning like the West-wide Energy Corridors refinement.

To foster continued success for its renewable energy program on public lands, the BLM must also continue to engage local elected officials and their communities, sportsmen, environmental and cultural groups, and other stakeholders in infrastructure planning.

Similarly, as any infrastructure bills are crafted and refined, we must ensure that they also focus on a smart approach for renewable energy and other infrastructure development on public lands and provide for strong stakeholder engagement.

It is extremely disappointing to see that President Trump has proposed to gut the Interior Department’s budget, creating uncertainty for the BLM’s clean energy programs and the future of renewable energy on public lands. Congress should stand up for the many benefits that renewable energy and associated transmission offers and ensure continued strong funding for these programs. 

Done right, these efforts can ensure that renewable energy, transmission lines and pipelines are smartly sited and efficiently permitted—benefitting our economy, energy future and environment.