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News Room: Policy Watch

Solar Versus Oil and Gas on Public Lands: A Tale of Two Processes

Tuesday, November 13, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Meagan Forney
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You could describe the Federal Government’s approach to energy development on public lands in the West as hypocritical, and you wouldn’t be off the mark.

By David A. Hill, Executive Editor

Indeed, Interior Department’s approval last week of a plan for utility-scale solar development stands in sharp contrast to the approach it has taken for oil and gas leasing. More to the point, while exploration companies are dealing with long delays in the approval process for drilling permits on BLM-managed lands, big PV projects are getting fast track attention thanks to the solar zone plan.

The new version of Interior’s plan sets aside 445 square miles for development of huge photovoltaic plants. Coming after years of false starts and delays, the government hopes the program will solidify its new approach to renewable energy resource development in regions of the country where the wind blows often and the sun shines nearly every day.

When the government first introduced its program to develop large solar on public lands, developers were able to grab parcels of public land on a first-come-first serve basis for getting fed approval of projects. They choose where to build; a process that brought with it lots of land speculation.

Instead of deciding on projects on a case-by-case basis, Interior will now direct development on land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles. It also thinks the new plan will help reduce permitting delays.

This is a ‘‘roadmap … that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands,” the Secretary said at a news conference in Las Vegas.

Maybe so, but it’s also concrete evidence of how different the government approaches energy development on land it owns, and it’s hurting domestic energy development. One executive of a  maor oil and gas company in Denver told me last week they won’t even consider bidding on BLM drilling leases because of the red tape and long delays in approving them.

Kathleen Sgamma, Vice President of Government and Public Affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, noted in her testimony before members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last August, approvals for drilling permits on public land are taking nearly a year, on average, and actual production isn’t commencing for three years or longer.

Sgamma pointed out that federal policies hindering their industry’s ability to expand development include additional layers of leasing analysis; environmental analysis that’s stretching five to seven years; average permitting times of 298 days; ad hoc demands with no basis in regulation; litigation from environmental groups and inability to access leases.

It is costing industry millions … as well as slowing the nation’s momentum for energy independence.


As we reported in Colorado Energy News previously, the 17 new ‘‘solar energy zones’’ are located within 285,000 acres in six states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Southern California is home to more  than half of the land — 153,627 acres.

According to Interior, the new solar energy zones were chosen because they are near existing power lines, enabling quick delivery to energy-hungry cities. The sites are also supposed to have fewer of the environmental concerns — such as endangered desert tortoise habitat — that have plagued other projects.

Interior also established 19 million acres — nearly 30,000 square miles — of so-called ‘‘variance zones’’ that will allow developers to propose solar projects in those areas. Environmental and other review of projects proposed in variance zones would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

At the news conference in Las Vegas, Salazar reminded people that the Obama administration has authorized 10,000 megawatts of solar, wind and geothermal projects that, when built, would provide enough energy to power more than 3.5 million homes.

Impressive, but is it enough to justify such massive intrusions on places like the Mojave Dessert of Southern California, or the San Luis Valley in Western Colorado? Further, if you compare the projected energy generation from the renewable energy zones, it still isn’t on the scale of what’s being generated from the major shale plays across the country, where massive amounts of oil and natural gas are being pulled from the ground, in relatively small operational footprints.

"Multiple horizontal wells from one pad is becoming a dominant feature of places like the Bakken, Niobrara and Eagle Ford,” notes Jon Haubert of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group representing western oil and gas companies who develop resources on public lands.  ”The amount of oil and natural gas being extracted from proportionately fewer sites continues to rise.”

Some clean energy advocates are dismayed by the sheer size and scope of the massive solar plants planned, including several major environmental groups, who file suit against the Interior solar zone plan earlier this year. While it is true that

Ceal Smith of the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance, and Solar Done Right, says her group prefers local distributed generation over utility size projects. But such smaller projects lack the support of utility companies, and in most cases, the power co-ops, despite their appeal to locals.

All the new activity associated with shale oil and gas development is generating lots of concern from local governments in places like the Front Range of Colorado, where drilling in urban areas is surging. And, let’s face it; some folks don’t want any fossil fuel extraction taking place in their states. Instead, maybe they ought to be pondering the solar zone policy and how much impact the huge new PV projects will bring with them, environmental and otherwise.

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