California Wants To Make It Easier To Cover Old Mines With Renewable Energy

California’s mining industry has been around since the 1800s — producing everything from gold to rare earth minerals — but now policymakers are easing the way for mines to add renewable energy resources to their portfolios.

The California Assembly Committee on Natural Resources unanimously passed a bill Monday that will allow mining companies to install solar and wind power without triggering the state’s lengthy environmental review process. Under current law, mine operators must go through the California Environmental Quality Assessment in order to use the mine’s surface area for renewable energy. But mine operators already had to go through the review process to get their mine approved in the first place, so going through it again when they want to put solar and wind on the mine can be discouraging for operators.

“Right now, if a mine operator wants to include a renewable energy project onto their disturbed land… it would open the entire mine operation up to repermitting,” Joshua Hoover, legislative director for Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R), who introduced the bill, told ThinkProgress. “It’s a very costly and long process.”

The new bill would mean that surface areas that are permitted for mining can be used — or reused — immediately for renewable energy projects. “It’s my understanding that this could apply to active or inactive mines,” Hoover said.

Obernolte’s bill was largely written by San Bernardino Supervisor Robert Lovingood, whose county — the largest in the continental United States — has 104 mines covering 12,000 acres of mostly desert, an area perfect for solar and wind development.

California’s renewable energy sector has experienced huge growth in recent years, largely driven by state policies such as net metering and a renewable portfolio standard that encourages private homeowners as well as utilities to invest in renewable energy. California leads the nation in installed solar capacity.

“This helps promote renewable energy projects out in the desert,” Don Holland, a spokesman for Lovingood, told ThinkProgress. Holland said the bill has been supported by both environmental groups as well as the mining industry.

The Mojave Desert, which stretches across Southern California into parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, is fragile and home to a number of endangered species. It has also been the focal point for some environmental debate about solar projects. In fact, solar development is listed under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s threats to the desert tortoise’s habitat.

The bill’s author wants to see as much renewable energy as possible installed on already-disturbed land, “rather than going in and scraping pristine, virgin desert,” Holland said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already placed a “national priority” on being able to use contaminated land for renewable energy development. The EPA even has an Abandoned Mine Lands Team, which provides technical support and resources to communities that are looking to create opportunities to reuse the land at former mine sites.

That initiative has met with some successes. Mining company Molycorp, which also operates in California, put a 1-megawatt solar project on 20 acres of an active mine in New Mexico in 2011. The Tennessee Valley Authority also put three wind turbines on a former strip mine in 2000, adding another 14 turbines four years later.