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Tuesday, Jul 9, 2013, 4:06 pm

New Federal Order Clears Way for Large Scale Solar Development

By Cole Stangler

The Bureau of Land Management's Public Land Order would set aside land in 17 "solar energy zones" for large scale solar development.
(Andreas Demmelbauer / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Less than two weeks after President Obama unveiled his much-hyped climate action plan, the federal government has rolled out a new regulation that could help clear the way for solar energy development. The move could exemplify the type of small-scale executive action on climate change that the administration is planning to pursue for the remainder of its second term.

On July 5, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued an order that withdrew more than 300,000 acres of federally owned land in six Western states from any new mining claims. The bureau’s Public Land Order applies to land in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico that falls in the so-called “solar energy zones,” 17 areas identified by the federal government last fall as being particularly well suited for solar energy development.

By restricting the ability of mining companies to put claims on land within those zones for the next 20 years, the BLM’s order could help pave the way for future developments in those areas to be devoted exclusively to solar energy. Meanwhile, the 143 existing mining claims spread across the solar energy zones remain unaffected by the order. 

“This new announcement is … sending a signal that [the administration] is actually quite committed to a renewable energy portfolio for America’s public lands,” Bobby McEnaney, a senior lands analyst for the National Resources Defense Council, told In These Times. “I think it’s pretty significant in that respect.”

Tyson Slocum, director of the public interest nonprofit Public Citizen’s energy program, called the move a “great step” but cautioned against excessive optimism. “It’s one thing to get a permit but it’s quite another to secure the financing.”

Indeed, while the Obama administration has already approved over 10,000 megawatts worth of renewable energy projects on public land—and the president’s new climate action plan calls for reaching 20,000 megawatts by 2020—only one of the 25 utility-scale solar facilities approved since 2009 is actually operating. Others are being constructed or awaiting construction.

In any case, both the federal government and clean energy advocates agree that the public land impacted by this order has enormous potential.

“If you look at the larger area that’s being scrutinized for development—California, Nevada and Arizona have the world’s richest solar resources,” McEnaney said. “If we’re going to see successful, economically viable production of solar [energy] at a meaningful scale, it’s going to probably take place in these areas first, just because of the altitude, the exposure and the weather. It’s very difficult to find any place on the planet that rivals that area.”

BLM’s order drew opposition from the National Mining Association (NMA), the principal lobbying organization for mining and coal companies, representing industry titans like Patriot Coal and Freeport-McMoRan.

NMA’s Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs and general counsel Katie Sweeney told In These Times that the BLM’s order was “contrary to the multiple-use mandate” of existing federal land legislation—the idea that the government should not be favoring a specific industry or land utility over another. 

“Federal lands are so important and critical to a strong domestic mining industry because these lands have historically and will continue to provide a large share of the metals and hard rock minerals that are produced in the country,” Sweeney said.

A number of other orders and regulations referenced in the climate action plan may be rolled out in the months ahead. As it works to reach the President’s target of permitting 20,000 megawatts by 2020, the Interior Department could issue more orders to expedite the approval of federal land for renewable energy projects. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Energy Department will be developing new fuel economy standards. The EPA will also be working to finalize its rules on carbon emissions for power plants. As part of its action plan, the Obama administration asked that the agency “work expeditiously” on the rules it first issued in March 2012.

Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.

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