The Wilderness Society is endorsing a bill that would encourage more corporate development of public lands, and allow Washington to undermine the National Environmental Police Act (NEPA). The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (S. 1407, H.R. 2663) would require the Department of Interior to identify priority and “variance” development areas for wind and geothermal energy, adding to the controversial Solar Energy Zones and variance lands established in 2012. The bill would not require “exclusion areas,” would add staffing to speed up renewable energy permitting, and would allow Washington to short-circuit environmental review.
More of the Same…
Landscape-level planning could ostensibly protect desert wildlands, but programmatic energy development plans have shown significant deference to industry and offer environmental shortcuts for industry to bulldoze significant swaths of intact habitat. If you want to imagine what will happen if the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act passes, you can take a close look at the Solar Energy Program established in 2012 that left hundreds of thousands of acres of beautiful desert valleys vulnerable to energy development through variance lands and development priority areas known as Solar Energy Zones.
Projects in Solar Energy Zones receive streamlined environmental review, but at significant cost to wildlands and natural resources. The Riverside East Solar Energy Zone in California threatens to constrain a vital wildlife corridor, and projects proposed for Nevada’s Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone were approved even though they will contribute to the extreme overdraft of a groundwater basin. The zones also streamline utility-scale solar projects despite the potential to undermine endangered bird species, including the western yellow-billed cuckoo and Yuma clapper rail, which have already been killed at other solar projects. The Solar Energy Program did establish some exclusion areas, but conservationists – including the Wilderness Society – were forced to accept variance lands and Solar Energy Zones even in some of the most remote corners of the desert.
In the end, the Solar Energy Program not only established a corporate shortcut on over 445 square miles of public lands (Solar Energy Zones), it also allowed for additional destruction on over 30,000 square miles of “variance” lands. And that is only the beginning because the program allows Interior to identify additional fast-track Solar Energy Zones across six western states during regular revisions of Resource Management Plans. The draft Resource Management Plan for Southern Nevada has already proposed six more Solar Energy Zones in that state alone. Variance lands were widely opposed by environmental groups in comments on the Solar Energy Program, and yet the Wilderness Society is now encouraging more such designations.
In the end, the Solar Energy Program did more to reduce environmental scrutiny of projects on public lands in the west, and its only redeeming quality – exclusion areas – were sparsely applied out of deference to industry.
The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act does not explicitly require that the Department of Interior establish exclusion areas for geothermal or wind, and would also loosen environmental protections more so than is the case for the Solar Energy Program. The legislation will likely result in hundreds of thousands of acres of additional energy zones and variance lands across the west for wind and geothermal energy, catering to corporate access and discarding wildlife, recreation and solitude.
Section 203 of the legislation would allow the Department of Interior to determine that a renewable energy project does not require any further environmental review (under NEPA) other than a cursory programmatic assessment. This is significant because programmatic assessments rarely evaluate site-specific issues in sufficient detail, as we have already experienced with the Solar Energy Program. Why would the Wilderness Society support efforts to water down NEPA?
Section 204 encourages the Department of Interior to also expedite review of utility-scale projects in variance areas. Under the Solar Energy Program developers are encouraged to first look to priority areas (the Solar Energy Zones) for project proposals; it is supposed to be comparatively difficult for developers to propose projects on variance lands because environmental review would take longer. This new legislation would eliminate that key distinguishing factor, and streamline permitting on lands that are supposed to receive some modicum of protection from utility-scale energy development.
A Backwards Approach
As climate change threatens the wild places we cherish, our approach should be to expand conservation designations, such as the National Landscape Conservation System, while doubling down on policies that encourage distributed generation and energy efficiency. Instead, we are accommodating a destructive status quo and ignoring a golden opportunity to undermine the centralized industrial model that has ravaged wildlands. We’re stuck in a negotiation where our options are unjustly constrained by corporate interests. When faced with the destruction of our public lands by the fossil fuel industry, our counter offer is to give the renewable energy industry expedited access to add to the destruction already caused by fossil fuels and other industries.
In a poll conducted about the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, respondents favored guiding larger renewable energy projects to already-disturbed lands by a 2-1 margin. The respondents probably were not asked whether they also prefer solar panels on rooftops and over parking lots, but its clear that the public would rather protect wildlands from utility-scale energy development. But the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act says nothing about
guiding energy development to already-disturbed lands.
So let’s rescind the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act and instead introduce a Sustainable Energy and Public Land Conservation Act. Instead of identifying thousands of acres for the energy industry to destroy, let’s identify more lands to add to the National Landscape Conservation System. And let’s generate clean energy sustainably by using the spaced in and around our cities that are already-disturbed.
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