Mitigation: Balancing energy development and conservation to protect our wildlands

Piute-El Dorado Area of Critical Environmental concern (ACEC) in Nevada

Mason Cummings/TWS

For the first time, the federal government is implementing a set of comprehensive plans to improve the protection of land, water and wildlife that might be impacted by energy development and other projects on public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management published its final mitigation handbook on December 23, setting industry-wide standards for both avoiding and offsetting damage caused to public lands from development.

Historically, work to mitigate the negative impacts of development such as oil and gas drilling and transmission lines has been implemented on a project-by-project basis. This approach was insufficient to protect our resources and inefficient for permit projects. We needed a better way to conserve our wildlands while modernizing energy development on public lands.    

The new policies from BLM and other federal agencies provide guidelines for a broad, landscape-scale approach to balancing development and conservation on public lands. If the policies are used properly, future development projects will avoid impacts to irreplaceable resources and federal agencies will require conservation gains to address and overcome any loss of resources that does occur.  

How mitigation works

Energy development projects on public lands must go through specific steps to ensure the best possible mitigation that will avoid and offset the negative impacts of development.

Step 1: Avoid: Locate projects away from sensitive areas

First, sensitive areas should be protected from development. Projects need to be steered toward low-conflict locations—regions where there is little conflict with biological, cultural and recreational resources. This is the best way to prevent impacts on wildlands and wildlife, while also reducing any uncertainty for development.

Step 2: Minimize: Keep impacts in project areas down

Second, after good sites for projects are identified, construction and operation practices should minimize impacts within those areas. For example, access roads can be designed to include culverts for wildlife movement, or low-water-use solar technologies can be used.

Step 3: Compensate: Consider mitigation on lands outside project areas

Even projects in appropriate locations that use good construction and operation practices can still have unavoidable impacts, such as loss of wildlife habitat.

That’s why, in the third step, agencies must consider ways that developers can offset or compensate for these impacts by investing in land protection or restoration projects nearby. This compensatory mitigation must not be used to justify bad project locations, however—it should only be considered once the other steps have been completed.  

Mitigation in action: Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone

One great example of mitigation on public lands is the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone. This area was chosen as appropriate for solar energy development because it has already been impacted by roads, transmission lines and other energy development.

In preparation for solar energy projects expected to be developed in the zone, BLM developed a mitigation strategy to comprehensively analyze affected resources, climate change science and a number of other landscape considerations.

Ultimately, the agency determined that offsite mitigation would be best in a nearby protected area called the Piute-El Dorado Area of Critical Environmental concern. This means that most of the work developers will do to offset their impacts on the land will take place in this other area, including:

  • Closure of illegal roads and restoration of habitat
  • Restoration of Mojave Desert vegetation to benefit desert tortoises
  • Potential expansion of the area
  • Community outreach and law enforcement

Mitigation is a commonsense approach that can limit harm to the environment. If used properly, the new Bureau of Land Management handbook and manual will help balance conservation and development on public lands.