Interior Expected to Grant Final Approval Of Solar Energy Zones Despite Protests

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The Interior Department is expected to grant final approval Oct. 12 for the establishment of “solar energy zones” on large swaths of public land in six Western states, despite lingering concerns from environmental groups and others who are formally protesting the plan.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to sign a record of decision to establish the zones spanning hundreds of thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management property where commercial-scale solar development will be expedited, according to a department source and representatives of environmental and solar groups.

Salazar, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is scheduled to “mark a major milestone for renewable energy development on public lands” at an Oct. 12 ceremony in Las Vegas, the Interior Department said Oct. 10.

Amy Krause, a department spokeswoman, declined to elaborate, except to say that a “major environmental milestone” was scheduled for announcement.

Under the plan, known formally as the Final Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, about 285,000 acres of public land in 17 areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah would be set aside for solar projects exceeding 20 megawatts, according to a final rule published in July (141 DER A-24, 7/24/12).

No Major Changes Expected in Plan.

In addition, the rule also established a “variance process” to allow development of solar energy projects on an additional 19 million acres of federal land that fall outside of the zones.

In an interview, a department source said some “tweaks” had been made in response to 16 formal protests filed by environmental and other groups. “I think it's largely very much what it was,” the source said.

Among the groups filing protests was the Western Watershed Project, a group concerned with the impact solar energy development will have on the desert tortoise, rare plants, “and other scarce and sensitive resources in siting” solar energy zones.

“Western Watersheds Project protests the BLM's failure to consider alternatives proposed by the public and by other agencies such as focusing development on private lands and heavily disturbed lands or emphasizing development of distributed energy,” the group wrote in a formal protest dated Aug. 27.

Other organizations, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, which also filed a formal protest, are concerned that the Interior plan allows large-scale solar projects already in the permitting pipeline to move forward, even if they are not located in a solar energy zone, said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the group.

“We think that as a matter of planning it's a very bad idea,” Belenky said in an interview. “Even if they are in areas that are now off limits, they could now go forward.”

Other Groups Protest.

Other environmental and conservation groups that filed formal protests include the Western Lands Project, Basin and Range Watch, and Solar Done Right.

In addition, the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Large-Scale Solar Association jointly filed a formal protest arguing the plan was too restrictive on solar development (167 DER A-9, 8/29/12).

Krause, the Interior spokeswoman, said BLM issued response letters or made modifications to the plan “as warranted,” and that “some things that couldn't be addressed within the scope of the [Record of Decision] can be addressed through rulemaking.”

However, Janine Blaeloch, founder of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, and others said they had low expectations that the plan would be improved.

“I would suspect there will be no significant improvement,” Blaeloch said in an interview. “That's my expectation.”

By Ari Natter