New BLM Guidance Will Help Offset Impacts from Energy Development

Dry Lake

Alex Daue

There is no question that energy development can have lasting impacts on our public lands.

Balancing the need to produce clean domestic energy and protecting lands that are home to critical water sources, wildlands, wildlife and many other values requires a thoughtful approach. With renewable energy and transmission growing at a rapid pace in the west, the Bureau of Land Management has released draft guidance  that will ensure we put energy development on equal ground with conservation.

The BLM has developed an approach that would evaluate public lands on a regional scale to determine how activities like energy development could affect a larger landscape. Put simply, the Department of Interior and BLM have put forward a smarter way of developing the energy we need, while better protecting sensitive resources. This new way of doing business could actually improve the health of our lands by offsetting unavoidable impacts in ways that align with regional conservation goals already outlined by the BLM. By putting the agency’s stewardship and conservation obligations on equal ground with development, we can reduce conflict and protect valuable resources.

Some of the concepts in this forward-thinking approach are already being piloted in the BLM’s western solar plan through the regional mitigation strategy being prepared for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in Nevada.  While important improvements should still be made to the Dry Lake strategy, it has provided an excellent opportunity for the BLM to build hands-on experience to help inform this agency-wide initiative.   

The Dry Lake strategy is only one example of a range of activities that the BLM could be adopting across the west. Efforts to protect the greater sage-grouse in Western Colorado and Wyoming or the desert tortoise in California will also greatly benefit from these measures. To see the full benefits though, we must ensure that the BLM continues to focus on the big picture with a comprehensive approach.  This means first avoiding impacts by guiding projects to low-conflict areas such as the western solar energy zones, then minimizing impacts on project sites with good design and construction practices. Being strategic about how any remaining unavoidable impacts are off-set with conservation in another location is also important.

This draft guidance should mean that we see better conservation outcomes from mitigation and more predictable and efficient permitting for developers for projects on public lands going forward.  Rather than the often ineffective project-by-project approach of the past, this guidance will help ensure that mitigation investments are informed by good understanding of the current health of the land and wildlife in the region; be focused on the highest priority conservation goals; and be as long lasting as the impacts from development.

Between the solar program established by the BLM last year, the recent Presidential Memorandum on transmission siting, and the data generated in the rapid ecoregional assessments, the BLM is in a good position to build on this program and it should also be valuable for evaluating and planning for oil and gas and other infrastructure development, such as roads and pipelines.

The BLM will now begin collecting comments on the draft guidance, as well as evaluating where and how the BLM can best use these new methods and concepts. We will be working to ensure that mitigation investments are durable and account for all the resources and values on the landscape, that other agencies learn from BLM’s leadership and experience and that these smart ideas are understood and implemented by BLM staff nationwide.