BLM Solar and Wind Development, Speed of Authorization, and How Best to Plan

Westlands Solar Park is being built on former farmland in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which many environmentalists see as preferable to renewable energy development on undisturbed landscapes. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Another excellent, comprehensive story from Sammy Roth of the LA Times. We’ve discussed the planning processes before, and see that Roth spoke with Mark Squillace. We discussed his planning ideas here and here.

To be fair, Biden’s Interior Department temporarily paused fossil fuel leasing, only for a federal judge to reject the pause as illegal. But many climate advocates weren’t pleased with a report released by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last week that called for modest limits on federal oil and gas leasing rather than an outright ban and hardly said anything about climate change.

But what about Biden’s other energy promise for America’s public lands — that his presidency would be a boon for the construction of solar and wind farms, which would create jobs and tax revenues and limit the need for fossil fuels?

The president’s track record there is mixed at best, at least so far.

I don’t know what “some climate advocates” expect.. the Biden Admin to ignore federal judges?

The Bureau of Land Management — which oversees nearly 250 million acres of public lands, or about one-tenth of the country’s surface area — has approved just one solar farm since Biden took office. It hasn’t approved a single wind farm. The agency has also signed off on three geothermal power plants, which can produce climate-friendly electricity around the clock.

For some perspective, I called up Peter Weiner, a San Francisco-based attorney who represents solar developers trying to get projects built on public lands across the West. Overall he had positive things to say about political appointees and career staff at the Bureau of Land Management, and their efforts to issue permits for renewable energy. He said he expects the agency to approve three more solar farms in the next month, all in California’s Riverside County, south of Joshua Tree National Park.

I asked Weiner whether he thinks the Biden administration is on track to meet a congressional target of permitting 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on federal lands by 2025. He thinks they’re behind, but he’s hopeful that approvals will start to come faster.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that things are going to change, but goddamn they’re slow to change,” he said.

What’s the holdup, exactly? Weiner pointed to staffing shortages spurred by President Trump’s half-baked plan to move Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Colorado, which led to an exodus of employees. Getting political appointees in place during the Biden administration’s first year hasn’t been a quick process, either. Weiner told me that when he’s talked with some of the president’s top appointees on public lands policy, he’s learned they have meetings scheduled every half-hour the entire day. How much can you get done when you’re spread that thin?” he asked.

I get that losing 200 out of 8000 employees could possibly mess things up.. but as far as I know, political appointees aren’t necessary to process permitting (perhaps to check on the final approvals and make sure they don’t irritate anyone politically important?) I also don’t know why “acting” politicals (which seem to have been there speedily following the election) couldn’t have done the same work. Perhaps BLM-ers out there can explain that? Or maybe Weiner is getting it wrong, and it’s just the standard processes are slow.

I also talked with Tom Vinson, vice president for federal regulatory affairs at the American Clean Power Assn., a trade group for solar and wind power companies. He said the challenges with building renewable energy on public lands predate the current administration, and it’s too much to expect Biden’s team to eliminate those obstacles in less than a year.

Still, Vinson is optimistic that changes are coming. He pointed out that the Bureau of Land Management recently issued a call for suggestions to improve renewable energy permitting, to which his group responded with several ideas for easing barriers. He also pointed out that, despite the small number of public lands projects the Biden administration has approved so far, federal officials are moving forward with the environmental analysis for at least wind one farm in Idaho, as well as several solar projects.

“They are trying to make projects work, both wind and solar. At the same time, they’re trying to improve the underlying process by which projects are permitted,” he said. “We are optimistic that they understand the potential for renewables on public lands, and want to capture that and recognize that there are barriers to doing so under the current rules.”

I should stop here and state that blindly approving every renewable energy facility a developer wants to build on public lands is not a good idea. As I’ve written previously, solar and wind farms can destroy sensitive ecosystems, which is one reason many clean energy advocates prefer rooftop solar panels to sprawling solar farms. There’s a difficult-to-navigate tension between building much-needed renewable power plants to prevent climate catastrophe and protecting biodiversity and wild landscapes.

The one solar farm the Biden administration has approved thus far — the 2,000-acre Crimson project in California’s Riverside County, which could include 350 megawatts of solar and 350 megawatts of battery storage — helps illustrate that tension.

Before the Interior Department signed off on Crimson, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a protest, arguing that officials had failed to adequately study possible harm to desert tortoises, Mojave fringe-toed lizards and other creatures, including fragmentation of their habitat. The conservation group Basin and Range Watch also protested. So did the Colorado River Indian Tribes, which cited potential damage to Indigenous archaeological sites and the importance of desert wildlife to tribal culture and religion.

Note that the convenient narrative that Tribes are against oil and gas but are for renewables, isn’t always true (not to speak of mining for minerals that renewables require). So renewable folks are going to have to work through the same involvement processes as everyone else… and that takes time. Unless it’s determined that renewable buildout is so important that various processes need to be speeded up. So 1) giving Tribes their rightful decision making authority, 2) protecting landscapes a la 30 x30, and 3) massively expanding renewables and 4) protecting T&E species (e.g. sage grouse) may not be an easy needle to thread.

Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School, suggested that smarter, more efficient federal land use planning could help get solar and wind farms built more quickly while minimizing environmental conflicts.

In a 2019 paper, Squillace proposed a new “layered planning” model in which the Bureau of Land Management would start by identifying its overall goals for an entire landscape — say, a watershed or wildlife corridor — and then work its way down to decisions about specific projects, such as a solar farm. That would cut down on cumbersome planning processes that can currently take a decade, while making it easier to assess the tradeoffs between renewable energy and conservation, Squillace told me.

“The current system is inefficient, and not necessarily the best, in terms of predicting the adverse impacts,” he said.

I reached out to the Biden administration for comment, asking the Interior Department what it has done to achieve Biden’s goal of promoting renewable energy on public lands and how they’d respond to criticism that they aren’t moving fast enough.

Tyler Cherry, the department’s press secretary, told me the Bureau of Land Management is currently processing applications for 36 solar projects, four wind projects and four geothermal projects, with preliminary review underway for an additional 64 solar and wind applications. He also pointed to the aforementioned call for suggestions on renewable energy permitting, saying officials are open to suggestions on issues such as the rent paid by developers and the amount of time it takes to process applications.

Squillace and I have had many discussions about FS planning and planning rules.. but I don’t see how landscape level planning would be less cumbersome and more “efficient.” What if all the landscape planning said “not here”? It seems to me anytime folks want to propose projects that other people don’t want, public involvement is some somewhat at odds with the concept of “efficiency” and speed. But perhaps there are ideas out there for how to do all three (involvement/collaboration, speed, required levels of analysis).

Lots of interesting stuff here. Roth says:

America’s public lands are a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, they’re an amazing refuge for hiking and camping. For many Westerners, they’re a source of economic sustenance thanks to oil and gas, timber or grazing. For others, they’re perfect for off-roading, hunting or fishing. For endangered wildlife on a heating planet, they’re some of the last best places to survive.

It’s probably not fair to ask these special places to help solve the climate crisis, too. But we may not have much choice.

It might be interesting to have a national programmatic EIS that looks at wind and solar on private and federal lands, plus other options (nuclear, geothermal) and including the effects of new transmission facilities, life cycle analysis of all environmental effects of the options, and so on. With input from all the experts and practitioners of all the energy options, as well as grid managers and experts. Fans of programmatics might like this idea.. or not.

3 thoughts on “BLM Solar and Wind Development, Speed of Authorization, and How Best to Plan”

  1. While this post focuses on the BLM and on solar and wind I hope that we haven’t forgotten that biomass is a companion resource that must play a key role in our renewable energy planning for our public lands. Integrated biomass energy reduces the need for battery storage as well as providing a market for billions of tons of dead trees and “pre-commercial” thinnings..

  2. I’m a little surprised that this didn’t come up:
    “The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) is focused on 10.8 million acres of public lands in the desert regions of seven California counties – Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego. It is a landscape-level plan that streamlines renewable energy development while conserving unique and valuable desert ecosystems and providing outdoor recreation opportunities.”
    (The “Notice” on BLM’s webpage explains Trump’s failed attempt to derail the plan. The energy industry had said “not enough.”)

    This planning effort was actually intended to cover other land ownerships, but developing a “plan” for private lands is a different kind of animal, and it doesn’t look like much has happened there.


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