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Interior Dept. issues rule for renewable energy development on public land

WASHINGTON—The Interior Department issued a regulation Thursday aimed at speeding up development of renewable energy on federal lands, one of at least five major energy rules the Obama administration is expected to release in coming weeks, even though they may be swiftly unraveled by President-elect Donald Trump.

After nearly eight years of regulations curtailing pollution from fossil fuels, the new rule, from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, will be the Obama administration’s first major stab at regulating renewable-energy development on public lands.

It could be short-lived. President Barack Obama’s energy and environmental agenda, which his administration has pursued nearly exclusively with regulations, has been thrown into doubt with the surprising victory of Mr. Trump as the next president.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) on Wednesday both cited Mr. Obama’s energy and environmental regulations as top targets next year, given the GOP’s imminent control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Regulations that are well-established and in full effect can be difficult and time-consuming to undo. Republicans haven’t focused on the renewable energy rule in particular as a target, but given that the Interior Department is issuing it so late in Mr. Obama’s presidency, it could be among the easiest to rescind.

Beyond the renewables rule, the Interior Department is working to finish an offshore oil and natural gas leasing plan; methane standards for oil and gas wells on public lands; and a stream protection rule for coal mining. The Environmental Protection Agency is also expected to issue final ethanol quotas that refineries would have to meet next year.

Such regulations, known in Washington as “midnight” rules because they’re completed in the final weeks of a presidency, can be more easily scrapped by the next administration than rules completed earlier.

Messrs. Ryan and McConnell said Wednesday they would look to undo virtually all of Obama-era rules on coal, including the EPA’s rule cutting carbon emissions from power plants and another EPA provision bringing more small waterways and wetlands under federal protection. Mr. Trump’s new transition website also cites the stream rule forthcoming from the Interior Department.

BLM, which manages 250 million acres of federal lands, mostly in Western states, has employed a patchwork of interim policies since 2009 to approve and manage renewable-energy projects. Officials hope the new rule will speed and simplify the process.

“This new rule not only provides a strong foundation for the future of energy development on America’s public lands, but is an important and exciting milestone in our ongoing efforts to tap the vast solar and wind energy resources across the country,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

Mr. Trump didn’t focus much on renewable energy while on the campaign trail, instead emphasizing his intent to unlock fossil-fuel reserves. When he has talked about wind and solar, he has generally derided the energy source themselves and Mr. Obama’s approval of such projects.

“The administration fast-tracked wind projects that kill more than 1 million birds a year,” Mr. Trump said in a speech at an oil conference in North Dakota in May.

BLM officials say the new rule, which was first proposed in 2014, will allow companies to significantly cut the cost of getting government permits by operating in areas the government has prescreened, but some renewable-energy companies worry it could create higher costs.

BLM has designated about 285,000 acres of federal land in the West as having strong solar potential and low conflict with other resources, like wildlife. The new rule also sets up a process to designate more land for solar and other renewable power development, according to the BLM.