Turning Pristine US Public Lands Into Solar Energy Farms

March 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

With most domestic issues, it’s
hard for an administration to bypass Congress and still affect
policy. That’s not true for energy.

Former President George W. Bush’s 2001 energy task force
was supposed to write policy recommendations, then disbanded
after environmentalists learned of the group’s secret meetings
with the oil and gas industry and sued.

Bush pressed ahead a different way, using his Interior
secretary, a former lawyer for fossil-fuel interests, to carry
out his oil-driven agenda and ramp up drilling on publicly owned

For the last four years, President Barack Obama has used
the same executive powers to reduce Interior’s focus on oil and
enact his own green agenda, as reported in Bloomberg
Businessweek’s March 29 issue. Under outgoing Department of the
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the administration has on
average sold 1,000 fewer leases annually for drilling on public
lands than Bush, according to data compiled by the Institute for
Energy Research, a Washington-based organization.

Companies peddling green energy projects, on the other
hand, are enjoying unprecedented access to the 248 million acres
overseen by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. In mid-March,
Salazar greenlighted three massive, privately funded clean
energy developments on federal properties.

Solar Farms

A Duke Energy (DUK) subsidiary will erect 90 towering turbines on
a wind farm about 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas, while McCoy
Solar and EDF Renewable Energy will each build solar plants in
the southern Mojave Desert of California, home to the sun-sanded
vistas of Joshua Tree National Park.

When the 7,700-acre McCoy development is complete, the
Interior Department says, it will be one of the largest solar
projects in the world. That’s in addition to 18 other utility-
scale solar plants, seven more wind farms and nine geothermal
facilities that Salazar has approved for development over the
next 5 to 10 years on property managed by the BLM in six states.

Altogether, the 37 projects will provide green power to
more than 3.8 million homes.

While Bush’s agenda had the full backing of the fossil fuel
industry, the Obama administration has had to convince
environmentalists that green energy expansion is worth tearing
up pristine public deserts.

Groups such as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources
Defense Council, worried that Interior’s plans impinge on
wildlife habitats, blessed the strategy only after Salazar
agreed to scale back solar development to 285,000 acres, instead
of 677,000 acres as first planned.

Some Skeptical

Smaller groups are still skeptical. They wonder why the
administration is giving up hundreds of thousands of acres of
untrammeled desert when its own Environmental Protection Agency
in 2011 identified 80,000 to 250,000 abandoned mine sites on
federal lands that would be suitable for large-scale solar and
wind projects.

A coalition led by the Seattle-based Western Lands Project
is suing Interior in federal court, seeking to force it to
divert its solar and wind projects to the degraded lands.

The groups also want the agency to scrap plans that leave
19 million additional acres up for grabs for future buildouts.
Interior is turning protected parcels “into permanent
industrial zones,” says Janine Blaeloch, head of the Western
Lands Project. “It’s the attitude of administrations in the
past — the desert becomes a dumping ground for whatever large
projects you have out there.”

New Secretary

Interior says the lawsuit is without merit. The agency
plans to approve 23 more renewable energy projects this year or
next, which would power 1.65 million more homes, so long as
incoming Secretary Sally Jewell doesn’t change course.

Daniel Kish, senior vice president for policy at IER, which
receives funding from the fossil fuel industry, is no fan of
Obama’s energy strategy. But Kish can’t quarrel with how Obama’s
carried out his agenda.

“It’s fair to say that past administrations have used the
federal estate to further their energy vision,” says Kish.
“Obama is no different.”

To contact the reporter on this story:
Ken Wells in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Silva at

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