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