Energy development on federal lands has mostly been limited to oil and gas operations, but last week marked the beginning of a new age when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). The plan designates which public lands are best suited for solar energy development and those that are too sensitive to be disturbed.
“This historic initiative provides a roadmap for landscape-level planning that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands and reflects President Obama’s commitment to grow American made energy and create jobs.” —Secretary Ken Salazar
Prior to the current administration, public lands were devoid of solar power development despite interest. By screening parcels for solar resource potential, transmission capacity, and lack of potential resource conflict, the new law will increase production of renewable energy and allow public lands to be protected.
The PEIS designates 17 zones, making 285,000 acres across Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah available for solar energy development. The new law does away with permitting on a case-by-case basis and instead directs development towards the pre-defined solar energy zones. Solar development within defined zones will benefit from fast-tracked permitting and reduced mitigation measures.
By identifying the areas best situated for development, the BLM can preemptively avoid later permitting hurdles and other delays. And, many of the zones are near existing power lines, which means less time and money spent making expanding the infrastructure.
The Department of Interior should take a page out of its own book and spend the time identifying areas of the public estate well suited for oil and gas development, and those areas that ought to remain off limits. Defining industry zones—areas that can be drilled without burdensome impacts to communities, wildlife, and other natural resources—is a step towards smart planning for responsible energy development on our public lands.