The RE Right of Way on Public Lands

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Utility-scale solar array.
In its quest to have permitted 10,000 megawatts of renewable power on public lands by the end of 2012, the Obama Administration has been criticized for fast-tracking projects without adequately assessing their impacts.
Desert cactus at sunset
Since 2009, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has approved 34 RE projects, including 18 utility-scale solar facilities, seven wind farms, and nine geothermal plants, with associated transmission corridors and infrastructure.
Utility-scale solar array.
Desert cactus at sunset

When President Obama took office, there were no renewable energy projects allowed on public lands. But since 2009, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has approved 34 RE projects, including 18 utility-scale solar facilities, seven wind farms, and nine geothermal plants, with associated transmission corridors and infrastructure. While wind energy projects are authorized or under review in Oregon and Wyoming, the majority of the projects are on public desert lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. When built, these projects will total 10,400 MW of capacity. While that capacity could provide an estimated 3.4 million U.S. homes with renewable energy, not everyone is happy about it.

In its quest to have permitted 10,000 megawatts of renewable power on public lands by the end of 2012, the Obama Administration has been criticized for “fast-tracking” projects without adequately assessing the impacts on wildlife and Native American sacred lands, specifically across the Mojave and Colorado deserts. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—which oversees the approval and leasing process for public lands operating under the arm of the DOI—has been called out by environmental and community groups for making “hasty” and “short-sighted” decisions when granting the leases or right of ways for RE projects.

Concerns over planning missteps continue to escalate as the DOI moves forward with permitting for an additional 23 utility-scale projects on federal lands. In early February 2013, the department announced that it had identified 14 solar, six wind, and three geothermal projects that should be approved for construction over the next year or two.

Taking Issue

As the California Desert Program Manager with the nonprofit National Park Conservation Association (NPCA), David Lamfrom has been close to the planning process since stakeholder discussions began in 2008. His chief concern is the proximity of current and future projects to national parks, and “the loss of habitats and the fragmentation of habitats” caused by some of these projects, which could “threaten the existence of the diverse plant and animal life that lives in our national parks and preserves.”

The National Park Service identified areas around 53 national park sites in the six-state region where significant impacts to resources would result from industrial solar development. The NPCA advocates that energy development should be focused on fallow agricultural or disturbed lands rather than on public lands with intact desert habitat.

Other environmental groups, big and small, have actively lobbied against RE projects on public lands and filed lawsuits against federal and state agencies—some of which are still pending. The general contention is that many of these projects pose significant harm to habitats and wildlife, including the federally protected endangered desert tortoise, golden eagle, California condor, and San Joaquin kit fox, as well as desert bighorn sheep and other species.

Tribal groups also sued federal and state agencies over the fast-track approval process for projects, which, they say, violated federal law by failing to engage in “government-to-government” consultation with tribes. More than 40 solar and wind energy projects are proposed within a 50-mile radius of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation, which stretches along the Colorado River on the Arizona and California border. CRIT says that these projects will desecrate sacred places and viewsheds, impairing the tribes’ ability to practice their traditional and religious beliefs.

“The tribe acknowledges the need for energy projects and supports renewable energy,” says John Batisky, the Historic Preservation Officer for the Quechuan Tribe, “but there is some question as to whether the government is doing enough on the consumption side to encourage consumers to reduce their fossil-fuel use and encourage communities to develop smaller, distributed-generation RE systems.”

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