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March 26, 2013
Improvements reported in renewable energy permitting

The pace of permitting renewable energy projects on federal land has picked up considerably since 2006, reports the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).  Overall, applications to construct wind and solar projects are now processed in about 1.5 years, down from about 4 years in 2006.  Permitting for geothermal projects averages between 1 and 4 years.

According to the GAO, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Department of Interior body that issues the majority of permits for energy development on U.S. lands, has improved permitting performance by increasing its use of programmatic environmental impact statements, designating priority projects, issuing instruction memoranda to its permitting staff, writing rules, and devoting more resources to processing applications.

EPAct 2005

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct 2005) directed the Secretary of the Interior to “seek to have approved non-hydropower renewable energy projects located on public lands with a generation capacity of at least 10,000 megawatts of electricity” by 2015.  Counting work that was approved before passage of EPAct, the BLM has authorized projects with a capacity to generate a total of about 5,450 megawatts (MW).  In October 2012, with the approval of a large wind energy project, Interior officials announced that the department had surpassed the 10,000-MW goal. 

The GAO found that initially after passage of EPAct 2005, it took about 3.5 years to complete the permitting process for solar projects and about 2.5 years for wind projects.  Some of this difference stems from the fact that most wind applications were processed using environmental assessments (EAs) rather than more-complex environmental impact statements (EISs), whereas all authorized solar applications were processed using EISs.  Processing applications using EAs took roughly two-thirds as long, on average, as processing applications using EISs.

Programmatic EISs

To help condense processing, the BLM developed programmatic EISs for wind, geothermal, and solar energy development in 2005, 2008, and 2012, respectively.  These statements enabled the BLM to amend multiple land use plans simultaneously to provide for renewable energy development on BLM-managed lands; in some cases, the statements also established new policies and identified best management practices for energy development.  According to the BLM, the programmatic EISs were intended to streamline the permitting process for renewable energy development by shortening the amount of time needed for project-by-project environmental impact analyses.

Prioritization and rulemaking

Also in 2011, the BLM established criteria for prioritizing wind and solar energy projects.  These criteria took into consideration natural and cultural resource values—seeking to direct development away from sensitive areas.  According to officials, the BLM expected that projects on less-sensitive lands would take less time to process because these projects would require less consultation, environmental analyses, and mitigation.

In addition, the BLM is employing rulemaking to expedite renewable energy permits.  First, in April 2011, the BLM issued a temporary rule to immediately prevent the filing of mining claims in areas contemplated for wind or solar energy development.  The BLM stated that these claims were filed not for true mining purposes but rather for the mining claimant to try to compel some kind of payment from the renewable energy applicant before relinquishing the mining claim. 

Second, the BLM has been working to establish a competitive process for leasing federal lands for solar and wind energy development.  The agency said that a competitive process—rather than the first-come, first-served process currently in use—would enhance the Agency’s ability to capture fair market value and ensure fair access to leasing opportunities.

Other expediting actions include the tripling of BLM staff used to process renewable energy permit applications and development of memorandums of understanding with state agencies to improve coordination.  Also, in December 2012, the BLM issued an instruction memorandum directing BLM’s national renewable energy coordination office to conduct an annual internal review to ensure collaboration among the various offices in the development of future renewable energy policies.

Click here for GAO’s report.

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