How the Biden admin is trying to boost renewables on public land

The Bureau of Land Management is making it easier to develop clean energy projects in the West, while trying to balance ecosystem protection — a tricky task.
By Eric Wesoff

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Bureau of Land Management Sign on a field with pumpjack in the background
(Bureau of Land Management, Utah/Flickr)

The federal Bureau of Land Management has announced a flurry of new rules and plans in recent weeks as it explores how the 245 million acres of public land it oversees can contribute to the Biden administration’s renewable energy and job goals — and as it tries to protect ecosystems and culturally important areas at the same time.

Perhaps the biggest news was Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s announcement that the BLM has now permitted almost 29 gigawatts of new clean energy projects — surpassing President Biden’s goal of permitting 25 gigawatts of clean energy on public land by 2025. Scores of additional proposed solar, wind, and geothermal projects now under review by the BLM could add up to another 32 gigawatts of utility-scale renewable energy on federal land in the coming years.

The BLM is looking to further accelerate clean energy development with its newly finalized Renewable Energy Rule, which lowers developer fees and lease rates by 80% for wind and solar projects on public lands and simplifies the application process.

Geothermal developers also got a boost from the BLM last week when the agency announced that it will expedite approvals for exploration activities such as drilling test wells. Geothermal energy is drawing increasing interest thanks to recent technological innovations.

While the BLM is moving to make clean energy development easier on public lands, it’s taking steps to make oil and gas development a little harder. For the first time in more than a century, the BLM is raising the royalty rates oil and gas companies have to pay the federal government for operating on public land. It also finalized a rule this month that aims to cut wasted fossil gas on federal and tribal lands by requiring oil and gas producers to find and fix leaks and reduce flaring, moves that will increase royalty income to the federal government as well as curbing planet-toasting methane emissions.

Climate and environmental advocates welcomed the higher royalty rates for fossil fuels. Attorney Mike Freeman of the legal nonprofit Earthjustice called the new rule a long overdue win.” But they want much more to be done to rein in oil and gas drilling on public lands.

BLM is modestly raising royalty rates, but it’s not striking some blow against the oil industry,” Patrick Donnelly of the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity told Canary Media. BLM has approved more oil permits in the past three years than in the previous four years.”

The BLM also last week finalized a controversial Public Lands Rule, which recognizes conservation as an essential component of public lands management, on equal footing with other multiple uses of these lands,” according to the agency. The BLM has traditionally leased its lands to oil and gas drillers, hardrock mining companies, and ranchers. Now, for the first time, it will offer restoration leases” and mitigation leases” to groups that intend to restore or conserve lands.

The Public Lands Rule points to the tension at the core of the agency’s clean energy push. Environmental groups have long opposed oil and gas extraction on public lands, but some also oppose projects like large-scale solar installations built in the desert because of concerns about ecological disruption. They also urge caution over other forms of clean energy, like geothermal, which can impact water sources and therefore pose a threat to desert landscapes and wildlife.

As the BLM looks to encourage more renewable development on the land it stewards, it will have to find a balance between moving at the urgent speed the climate crisis demands and minimizing ecological impact of the voracious land needs of renewable energy.

Updating the Western Solar Rule 

That conflict will be evident in the coming months as the BLM finalizes a big, new plan for solar power on federal land in Western states.

The announcement that we’ve permitted 25 gigawatts is backward-looking. The real action right now is forward-looking — what’s going to happen with the Western Solar Plan? That plan is going to chart the next 20 years or more of solar development on public lands. It’s going to be very consequential,” said Donnelly.

The BLM’s forthcoming update to the Western Solar Plan will be a grand energy-permitting blueprint that determines which parts of its land in 11 Western states will be open for potential utility-scale solar development. Solar power from photovoltaic panels is tremendously land-intensive compared to fossil-gas or nuclear generation, and installations are gobbling up private real estate in sunny locations and Western deserts. The Biden administration wants to make more public land available for big solar farms, while minimizing harm to ecosystems and wildlife habitat.

The BLM announced in January that it is weighing five options for opening up its land to solar in the West, ranging from 8.4 million acres to 55 million acres. Its preferred option would make 22 million acres available. But not all of that land would be covered with solar panels. Rather, developers would apply to build on specific parcels within the designated areas, and each application would be evaluated individually. Ultimately, the agency projects that 700,000 acres of its land will be developed for utility-scale solar. The public comment period for the plan ended last week and the BLM is expected to make a final decision by the end of the year.

The Solar Energy Industries Association, the trade association for the American solar market, praised the BLM’s preferred alternative of opening up 22 million acres, and pointed out that it’s still far less BLM land than the oil and gas industry has access to. Under the current policy, there are at least 80 million acres of federal lands open to oil and gas development, which is 100 times the amount of public land available for solar. The BLM’s proposal is a big step in the right direction and recognizes the key role solar plays in our energy economy.”

Conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association are pushing for the smallest option of 8.4 million acres, with development largely confined to already degraded lands. Donnelly’s group is particularly concerned about disturbing thousands of acres of desert tortoise habitat. The tortoise’s situation is getting worse — it’s spiraling toward extinction,” he said.

In addition to steering solar development to less sensitive landscapes, the BLM is considering which areas are near existing or proposed transmission lines, and it’s aiming to make the whole permitting process more efficient.

Ultimately, even the wildlife advocates agree that solar makes sense on some BLM lands.

We believe that public lands are part of the solar energy solution and that solar development is an inevitability,” Donnelly said. We are pushing to plan for that in the best and the most environmentally sensitive way we can.”

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.