The Obama administration just made it easier to put solar and wind on public lands

The new policy has bipartisan support and will drive revenue for the federal government.

Installers from California Green Design put solar electrical panels on the roof of a home in Glendale, Calif. CREDIT: AP Photo/Reed Saxon
Installers from California Green Design put solar electrical panels on the roof of a home in Glendale, Calif. CREDIT: AP Photo/Reed Saxon

On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finalized a measure that aims to modernize solar and wind energy development on public lands.

The rule, which streamlines and standardizes the review process for new renewable energy projects on public lands, is the capstone of the Obama administration’s eight years of work to responsibly expand solar and wind development on public lands.

And while this rule comes at a time when the future of Obama’s environmental policies is uncertain, there is reason to believe this rule will hold through the Trump administration.

Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress called on BLM to finish the rulemaking and to ensure fair market value for use of public lands.

The rule establishes a means of leasing low-conflict land — that is, land that isn’t set aside for wildlife habitat or other uses — for solar and wind development. The leases will be offered through a competitive bidding process with formally established rates and fees. The process mimics how other energy industries, like oil, gas, and coal, operate on public lands to create predictability and stability for developers. Also, by instituting a fee system based on how much electricity is produced, this rule helps to ensure that taxpayers are receiving a fair return for the use of public lands.

“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,” Secretary Jewell said. “Through a landscape-level approach, we are facilitating responsible renewable energy development in the right places, creating jobs, and cutting carbon pollution for the benefit of all Americans.”

While a Trump administration could fail to take advantage of the lease system, his campaign emphasis on job creation and federal revenue suggests that he will offer up public lands for energy development of all kinds.

Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Wind generation has tripled and solar generation has increased twenty-fold since 2009. Renewable energy generation in traditionally red states continues to soar at an unprecedented rate. In fact, renewables made up over two-thirds of new energy production in the United States last year, with places like Texas, Kansas, and Iowa leading the way in wind power.

Leaders from across the political spectrum have praised the rule, calling it a win from both an environmental and economic standpoint.

“Transitioning from the antiquated right-of-way process for siting renewable energy projects to a competitive leasing process … should generate considerably more revenue for the taxpayer,” read a bipartisan letter signed by 14 House members. “Adopting a modern approach to leasing should also benefit the renewable energy industry by streamlining the application process.”

Senior leaders from over a dozen environmental groups urged Secretary Jewell to pass the ruling, calling it “critical to establishing an enduring renewable energy program for public lands.” Because the rule aims to identify areas least likely to infringe on critical habitats for energy development, conservationists also applauded this effort.

“Today’s release of the Bureau of Land Management’s final Wind and Solar Leasing Rule is a big win for common sense energy development on our public lands,” Center for American Progress Senior Fellow and former Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David J. Hayes said in a statement. “Our nation needs to take advantage of the renewable energy resources that our public lands provide — but we need to do it in the right way, and in the right places. This rule does that by providing competitive opportunities for developers to site projects in low conflict locations that are rich in renewable resources, while providing American taxpayers with a fair return.”

This ruling follows another in which Obama set aside 10 million acres of public lands in California for conservation efforts and renewable energy development a few months ago. A case study from Nevada’s Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone has also had positive results. A year ago, BLM piloted a project in the area aiming to expedite the permitting process for new solar projects in designated zones while minimizing disturbance to wildlife and were able to auction off rights to develop the land that gave $6 million back to taxpayers and completed the review process in half the time it had taken them previously.

“We hope this rule paves the way for increased solar development at predictable rates on public lands,” said Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association in a statement. “BLM-managed land includes some of the world’s best solar resources, and they should be used to deliver clean, reliable, and cost-effective solar power to customers.”

Julie Katsnelson is an intern on the Energy and Public Lands teams at the Center for American Progress. Jenny Rowland is the Research and Advocacy Associate for the Public Lands Project at Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @jennyhrowland