The Biden administration recently issued a decision walking back proposed amendments to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP)[i] which, if adopted, would have opened 800,000 acres of land in the California desert for renewable energy development.[ii] Conservation advocates praised the decision while renewable energy developers lamented the loss of an opportunity to expand solar and wind generation in the region.[iii]
Developed during the Obama Administration, the DRECP sets aside nearly 11 million acres of public lands in the California desert for renewable energy development and conservation projects.[iv] Billed as a collaboration between federal and state partners including the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, BLM, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DRECP seeks to capitalize on the region’s abundant sun, wind, and geothermal resources while also preserving the area’s ecological diversity.[v]
Under the amendments proposed by the Trump Administration, millions of acres currently designated for conservation would have been re-designated for renewable energy development.[vi] The amendments also proposed streamlining the process for siting renewable energy projects within development areas and expanding the use of such development areas to include broadband infrastructure, mining and minerals development, livestock grazing, and recreation.[vii]
Proponents of the Trump-era amendments cited the fact that only four percent of the 10.8 million acres included in the DRECP is earmarked for renewable energy development.[viii] Under the current iteration of the DRECP, 800,000 acres of public lands are potentially available for renewable energy development, but just 388,000 acres are classified as “Development Focus Areas,” which have “substantial energy generation potential, access to existing or planned transmission, and low resource conflicts.”[ix]
In revoking the amendments, the Biden Administration characterized them as an attempt to “scrap [a] carefully developed plan” in a way that was “unnecessary and at odds with balanced land management.”[x] However, some in the renewable energy industry see the DRECP’s current land allocations as unbalanced because the amount of land designated for conservation far exceeds that which is designated for renewable energy projects.[xi]
The issue is particularly rife because, absent a large-scale transition to renewable energy, climate change will remain the biggest threat to the very plant and animal species and habitats protected by the DRECP.
Despite scrapping the proposed amendments, the Biden administration signaled its commitment to expand access to federal lands for renewable energy projects and streamline the permitting process in other ways. For example, Executive Order 14008 directs the Secretary of the Interior to identify steps to accelerate renewable energy on public lands and waters while ensuring “robust protection of lands, waters, and biodiversity,” including by setting a goal to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030.[xii]
Congress has also indicated willingness to fund these efforts, as shown in the terms of the appropriations bill enacted at the end of 2020.[xiii] In the legislation, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to issue permits for the production of 25 GW of renewable energy on federal land by 2025 and created the Renewable Energy Coordination Office, which is tasked with revamping the permitting process for these projects.[xiv]
Moreover, the DRECP is just one program within the BLM’s broad portfolio of energy resource development on federal lands. In addition to the DRECP, the BLM manages a number of other renewable energy programs, such as the Solar Energy Program (also known as the Western Solar Plan), which facilitates the development of utility scale solar projects on public lands.[xv]
Sun-rich southwestern states including Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California have great potential for solar developments across the 19 million acres of public lands within their borders. To build on this potential, the BLM created 17 “Solar Energy Zones” that provide developers with access to areas within these states that are well-suited to solar development and the transmission corridors necessary to move the power.[xvi]
The reach of BLM’s programming, in coordination with the Biden administration’s policy directives, stands as a clear indication of the future growth in the development of renewable energy on public lands.
[i] Press Release, Bureau of Land Management, Official Statement: Department of the Interior Will Revoke the BLM’s Comment Period on Proposed Amendment to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (Feb. 7, 2021), https://www.blm.gov/press-release/official-statement-department-interior-will-revoke-blms-comment-period-proposed [hereinafter “Biden BLM Press Release”].
[ii] Press Release, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Land Management Announces Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Desert Plan Amendment (Jan. 13, 2021), https://www.blm.gov/press-release/bureau-land-management-announces-draft-environmental-impact-statement-desert-plan [hereinafter “Trump BLM Press Release”].
[iii] Kavya Balaraman, Renewable advocates bristle at Biden’s move to preserve California desert land use plan, Utility Dive (Feb. 23, 2021), https://www.utilitydive.com/news/biden-interior-preserve-california-desert-land-use-plan-disappoints-wind-developers/595584/.
[iv] Bureau of Land Management, California: Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, https://www.blm.gov/programs/planning-and-nepa/plans-in-development/california/desert-renewable-energy-conservation-plan (last visited Mar. 15, 2021).
[v] California Energy Commission, Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, https://www.energy.ca.gov/programs-and-topics/programs/desert-renewable-energy-conservation-plan (last visited Mar. 15, 2021).
[vi] Trump BLM Press Release, supra note 2.
[ix] Bureau of Land Management, Executive Summary for the Record of Decision: Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (Sept. 2016), https://eplanning.blm.gov/public_projects/lup/66459/133459/163123/DRECP_BLM_ROD_Executive_Summary.pdf.
[x] Biden BLM Press Release, supra note 1.
[xi] Balaraman, supra note 3.
[xii] See Exec. Order No. 14,008, 86 Fed. Reg. 7619, 7624 (Jan. 27, 2021), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2021-02-01/pdf/2021-02177.pdf.
[xiii] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, H.R. 133, 116th Cong. (2021), available at https://rules.house.gov/sites/democrats.rules.house.gov/files/BILLS-116HR133SA-RCP-116-68.pdf .
[xiv] Id. at § 3102, 3104.
[xv] Bureau of Land Management, Solar Energy, https://www.blm.gov/programs/energy-and-minerals/renewable-energy/solar-energy (last visited Mar. 5, 2021).