Powering Public Lands: Government Puts Solar Energy in the Spotlight

Maps_combo_sezLeft: BLM land open to solar development before 2011; right: BLM's current 17 solar energy zone. Maps: NRDC

Wind, solar, geothermal and other so-called green energy sources might not spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but they're far from benign.

Ask any bird conservationist what she or he thinks of wind farms and you might get a less-than-glowing response. Back in 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency put migratory bird mortality due to wind turbines somewhere around 440,000 each year. And solar power developers made no friends among the conservation world when the Ivanpah solar project in Southern California and adjacent to the Mojave Desert Preserve butted up against the endangered desert tortoise. The project was stalled as many hundreds of the reptiles were relocated.

"For a couple of years I was basically in cardiac arrest," says Ileene Andrerson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Because of the amount of land to be developed [for renewable energy] and the piecemeal approach."

Anderson is referring to the years following the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, during which companies filed hundreds of project applications for mostly solar but also wind projects on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which had $350 million in ARRA funds with which it was mandated to "restore landscapes and habitat, spur renewable energy development on public lands, and create jobs."

That looks great on paper, but environmental groups quickly raised red flags over where the renewable energy developments would be sited and what oversight (or lack thereof) would be placed on them. This effectively pitted greens against greens in what looked like a counterproductive, senseless battle. But Bobby McEnaney, land policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, contends that the efforts the NRDC and similar groups have made to ensure renewable energy is developed with minimal negative impacts on wildlife, recreation access and cultural resources were rooted in lessons learned from decades of oil and gas development on public lands.

"Solar and wind energy developers would probably prefer the laissez-faire approach, which is what oil and gas developers have had on BLM land," McEnaney says. "But two wrongs don’t make a right."

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