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Shady activists go scorched earth on public lands

If a solar energy facility scorches a bird in the desert, do federal regulators and conservation groups make any noise?

It’s a question Nevadans face as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decides how to exercise its broad discretion over Nevada’s federal lands. Nevadans should be alarmed to learn that some of the most active interest groups are actually pushing the BLM to adopt land-use policies for energy development that injure the public lands the BLM is sworn to protect – and the BLM strangely appears happy to oblige.

To their credit, some environmental groups have raised concerns about wind and solar development on federal lands, including threats to wildlife and land-use issues.

For instance, the Ivanpah solar facility in California’s Mojave Desert is described as the “largest solar thermal power plant in the world.” It is also among the most prolific bird slayer. Environmentalists expect the massive facility to incinerate about 28,000 birds per year. Meanwhile, wind turbines kill and injure hundreds of thousands of birds each year that are protected under federal law, including bald and golden eagles.

The environmental impacts don’t end with bird deaths. Wind and solar facilities also take up wide swaths of land, as anyone who has seen the massive Ivanpah plant knows.

But while all forms of energy development require land, Nevadans get a raw deal from wind and solar. BLM requires all permittees to avoid, mitigate and minimize their impact on the land. However, while oil and gas companies are required to reclaim and restore the land when drilling ends, wind and solar companies aren’t. This double standard means wind and solar actually leave less land for recreational activities such as hunting and fishing.

One would think other groups, such as hunters and fishers, would raise similar objections to those of some environmentalists. However, some so-called “sportsmen” groups hold hypocritical positions. They oppose oil and gas development on public lands, but encourage renewables despite clear drawbacks.

For instance, a coalition of activists including Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership sent a letter to the BLM in September. In it, the groups detail numerous pages of concerns with oil and gas, stressing that such resources “should be developed to ensure conservation of other values on the public lands, including fish and wildlife, before specific drilling projects are proposed.”

This might be a reasonable position, if also applied to wind and solar. Yet the letter makes only one passing reference to wind energy and even seems to encourage the BLM to expand solar development, noting, “The Western Solar Plan provides a blueprint for utility-scale solar energy permitting” in western states.

It seems strange that groups concerned about land use would push for alternative energy development that uses more land – until you look behind the rhetoric and into the finances. Both TU and TRCP are backed by liberal foundations that oppose fossil fuels and support renewables, including the Pew Charitable Trusts and Hewlett Foundation.

What they offer is a way to make it seem like grassroots sportsmen – a constituency not normally associated with San Francisco environmentalists – support certain land policies.

It’s all about politics, in other words.

This decoying and double standard harms Nevada. No energy source is without risk, but while the BLM scrutinizes oil and gas, the agency appears less interested in the threats wind and solar pose to public lands.

The evidence is clear: It takes the BLM 228 days, on average, to process permits to drill for oil and gas on federal lands, up from 154 days in 2005, according to the Institute for Energy Research. Meanwhile, the BLM has proposed “solar energy zones” to speed up solar development in several western states, including Nevada, even as oil and gas permits languish in regulatory purgatory.

Unfortunately, not only does the BLM seem uninterested in doing what’s best for Nevada, but the agency has camouflaged activists whispering in its ear. Nevadans deserve an honest steward of their lands, one beholden to the public interest – not political interests.

Will Coggin is a senior research analyst at the Environmental Policy Alliance, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education.