Proposed reforms will promote responsible renewable energy development on public lands

Windmills on the eastern end of the Columbia Gorge.

Sheila Sund, Flickr

For centuries, coal, oil and gas have been extracted from public lands. Pollution and other negative impacts have resulted. Fortunately, renewable energy is also now being developed on public lands, providing a viable path to a clean-energy future.

We need a modern approach to leasing wind and solar energy

This approach must simultaneously facilitate faster permitting and guide renewable energy projects to the most appropriate places on public land. This will ensure we advance renewable energy at the size and scale we need to address climate change and protect wildlife, wildlands and recreational opportunities.

Luckily, both the executive and legislative branches have begun reforming how renewable energy projects are managed on public lands.

We are advocating that two important policies be finalized this year:

The Interior Department’s Wind and Solar Leasing Rule

The Department has created a new set of guidelines collectively known as the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule. The rule will promote the use of preferred areas for solar and wind energy and set up a competitive leasing system similar to the one used for oil, gas, coal and offshore wind. It will establish stability and consistency in Bureau of Land Management offices across the country. And it will help ensure a smart renewable energy program at the BLM survives and thrives through future administrations.

Specifically, the rule will:  

  • Make responsible renewable energy development easier.
    • Prioritizing development in designated low-conflict areas, as the rule does, will speed up permitting by avoiding conflict that has resulted in costly delays.
    • The rule makes the process faster and cheaper by incentivizing and fast-tracking development in priority development areas, where environmental review is conducted up front.
  • Help modernize the U.S. energy industry.
    • It will implement competitive leasing, putting renewable energy on the same playing field as fossil fuels.
    • A competitive leasing process will also help taxpayers. By law, the BLM is required to get fair-market value for the use of public lands for energy development, and this rule was designed to ensure that.
  • Help the U.S. meet climate goals.
    • With at least one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions coming from public lands, we know that these lands must play a role in addressing climate change.
    • The federal government continues to identify new areas on public lands that are appropriate for wind and solar energy development. 
    • The more renewable energy we develop on public lands in a smart way, the more we can meet energy demands while lowering our carbon footprint.

The Wind and Solar Leasing Rule was announced in the fall of 2014, but has yet to be finalized. The Wilderness Society, together with other clean energy advocates, is calling on the Administration to finalize this rule as soon as possible. 

The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act

The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (PLREDA) makes a commitment to improving and expanding renewable energy projects on public lands. If passed, this legislation would promote renewable energy development in appropriate places on public lands. It would also address the need for additional planning for these projects, make reforms to the revenue structure and provide economic benefits to states and counties in the West. 

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Send half the revenue collected from wind and solar projects back to states and local communities.
    • 25 percent of revenue collected from renewables projects on public lands would go to the state.
    • 25 percent would go to the county where the project is built.
  • Create a conservation fund for habitat restoration.
    • 35 percent of the revenue would be deposited in a fund for wildlife and land conservation and protection.
    • These funds would also engender access to public lands for outdoor recreation.
  • Provide BLM with funds to expedite permits for and siting of renewable energy projects.
    • 15 percent of the revenue collected would go toward processing more renewable energy applications.
  • Improve interagency cooperation on renewable energy projects on public lands.
    • PLREDA would establish an ombudsperson who would facilitate communication around project permitting issues between the different agencies involved.
    • It would direct these agencies to provide staffing resources to ensure these projects move forward as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  • Direct DOI to identify more lands appropriate for renewable energy.
    • Priority areas would be set aside for geothermal and wind energy projects. These would be similar to the Solar Energy Zones identified in BLM’s Western Solar Plan.
    • Priority areas must meet certain criteria, including having access to transmission lines and being likely to avoid or minimize conflict with wildlife habitat.

PLREDA was introduced in Congress in May 2015, and it enjoys rare bipartisan support—it is led by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Jared Polis (D-CO) in the House and Dean Heller (R-NV) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in the Senate. We hope Congress will pass it this fall when it returns from recess.

Time to ensure a sustainable energy future

With the final release of its Wind and Solar Leasing Rule, the Interior Department can ensure developing clean, renewable energy on public lands becomes the new way of doing business. But the Department does not have the authority to redirect revenue collected from renewables projects or to secure more resources for increasing the efficiency of how these projects are permitted.

That’s why we need the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act. By passing PLREDA, Congress will help improve how renewable energy projects are developed on public lands, creating jobs and protecting the environment.

Together, the rule and the bill will ensure that developing clean, renewable energy on public lands becomes the new way of doing business. They will contribute to a stable energy economy, help address climate change and improve public health. 


Originally published on Aug. 23, 2016. Title changed on Sept. 2.