BY SHAUNA SHERARD
Director of communications for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project
Renewable energy development has seen a dramatic growth in recent years. The solar industry has reported a 300 percent increase since 2006. In addition, 6,816 megawatts of wind power was installed in 2011 — 31 percent more than what was installed in 2010. Renewable energy can provide a longer-term solution to U.S. energy needs, but current efforts to open federal public lands for wind, solar and geothermal energy development could have long-term impact on important fish and wildlife habitat and limit access to these lands. If enacted, new bills in Congress would provide a way to offset some of those impacts.
A priority of the current administration has been to diversify the energy portfolio of the country and to proactively open federal public lands. Since 2009, the Department of the Interior has authorized 29 large-scale renewable energy projects on or involving public lands, including 16 solar facilities, five wind farms, and eight geothermal plants. Many other applications are at various stages of review. Currently, wind and solar developers pay fees for the use of national forest or BLM lands, but they do not pay royalties. The process for acquiring wind and solar sites is not competitive and once renewable projects move towards development, there is no compensation for the use of these public lands.
The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act (S. 1775, H.R. 5991 and H.R. 6154) strike a balance between developing energy resources while safeguarding fish, wildlife and water resources. The bills would establish a pilot leasing program for wind and solar development on federal public lands. In addition, a royalty system on the value of renewable power produced would be created — not unlike the system for fossil fuels.
Some of the funding generated from the royalties would go to states and counties where the development occurs as well as to the permitting agencies to cover administrative costs. Most important to the conservation community, however, the bills would allocate 35 percent of revenues from leasing of solar and wind power to secure public access for hunting and fishing, mitigate the effects of development on fish and wildlife habitat, and allow for the protection of the most important fish and wildlife habitats.
The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act provides a different approach than traditional energy and mineral development on public lands. Hard rock minerals such as gold and copper are mined from public lands without payment or royalty. As a result, the clean-up costs of abandoned mines on public lands could cost tens of billions of dollars without dedicated funding to pay for it. And oil and gas developed on public lands has generated billions of dollars in royalties for states and the federal government — but none of this money is set aside for fish and wildlife habitat protection or restoration.
Time is short in the remaining days of the 112th Congress and it is unclear if any of the bills will see legislative action. But with a bipartisan list of cosponsors representing a range of political perspectives, bill sponsors Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and James Risch, R-Idaho, and Reps. Joe Heck, R-Nev., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and Mike Thompson, D-Calif., may still be able to work through the gridlock that has faced Congress for much of this session. ◊
BY SHAUNA SHERARD