Commentary - March 26th, 2014
12:54 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

Paying back the land: Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act of 2013

As the second session of the 113th Congress develops, it is my great hope that Congress can leave its abysmal bill passage record in the past. In 2013, Congress signed just 58 bills into law, the lowest since bill tracking was initiated in the 1940’s. Much of the stalemate characterizing the last two congressional sessions has been blamed on bipartisan gridlock. It begs the question, why aren’t the widely supported bipartisan bills that are waiting in committee becoming law? Bills that are well rounded, effective, and supported by stakeholders are repeatedly dying in committee. A prime example of this is the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act of 2013 which has been introduced in both the house and senate. The bill would make wind and solar development on public lands more efficient and predictable, and ensure that agencies look after the health and vitality of America’s public lands and nearby communities.

As Renewable Portfolio Standards are placed in many states across the country, more renewable energy sources will be required from the nation as a whole. The U.S. Department of Interior estimates that 21 million acres of federal land in the West have the potential to generate wind power and 29 million acres have solar-energy potential. Montana is one state that is set up to play a large role in creating a lot of that wind power. Montana has been ranked in the top three for potential wind power, but is currently 22nd in the nation for wind production. There is no denying that wind development has a major impact on the landscape, which amplifies the need to establish additional guidance for future wind and solar energy development. 

The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act sets up several pilot programs using a competitive leasing system similar to the way oil and gas leases are currently permitted on public land. A royalty revenue share from power generated would be returned to the states and counties in which the project takes place. In addition, a Renewable Energy Resource Fund would be formed to mitigate and restore habitat in the affected area or region. The remaining portion of the royalty proceeds would be used to cover administration and processing costs incurred by the managing agency.

For counties and states, royalty funds could potentially be used for road maintenance, public safety and law enforcement, conservation or access easements, capital for leveraging federal and state resources, and the critical stabilization of operations budgets in tough economic times.  In addition to royalties going back to the affected county and states, the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act will provide up to 35% of generated royalties to conservation funding. The fund will act much like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with monies going to projects in the effected region and state. Funding could take shape as habitat restoration work, purchase of access easements to isolated blocks of public lands, or enhancing critical wildlife habitat or game corridors in the region. There would be foresight and planning in identifying critical and sensitive habitat, ensuring long term funding to the regions communities and wildlife.

The current project-by-project, non-competitive approach to renewable energy on public lands provides little guidance on identifying lands with high wind resources and low environmental conflicts, and thus increases costs and risk to investors, unnecessarily diverts limited agency resources to review projects, and rewards and encourages duplicative and speculative applications.

With the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, there exists the opportunity to be ahead of the game and take a proactive stance on renewable development on public lands. Counties would be able to mitigate impacts of development and fortify community infrastructure. For wildlife, planning ahead is not only smart, but vital to maintain important and sensitive habitat on public lands across the west. I would like to thank Senator Tester and Representative Daines for their support of the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act. But the real question is, why is something that has bi-partisan support from western legislators, as well as the Western Governors Association, Montana Association of Counties, and countless conservation and recreation groups not even able to schedule a hearing in committee? My only wish is that our Congress can stop stalemating and pass effective legislation. Public land is a large reason Montana is such an incredible place to live and recreate, so let’s properly prepare for the role our lands will play in producing renewable energy by supporting the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act. 

This is Hayley Newman for the National Wildlife Federation.