Bill promoting renewables on public land gets House hearing

By Stephen Davies

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WASHGINTON, July 21, 2016 - Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are using the waning days of Congress to push for a bill promoting renewable energy development on public lands.

The goal of H.R. 2663, the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (PLREDA) of 2015, is to put wind and solar energy on an equal footing with oil, gas and geothermal energy, which have their own federal laws that encourage leasing on public lands, bringing in billions of dollars to states and local governments in royalties.

But solar and wind developers must apply for rights of way to place their projects on public lands and go through what is an often-lengthy review process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The bill, a version of which has been introduced in each Congress since 2011, would require the Bureau of Land Management to establish priority areas on BLM lands for geothermal, wind and solar development. It also would require BLM to come up with a royalty rate and system to distribute revenues to states and other leasing authorities.

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At a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing last week, the panel's chairman, Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., marshalled the opinions of a county supervisor and representatives of two environmental groups and a renewable energy company in support of the bill.

“In public lands counties, the single greatest barrier to project development is the protracted federal permitting process, which is simply not an issue on private lands,” said Buster Johnson, vice chairman of the Mohave County Board of Supervisors in Arizona.

The fifth-largest county in the United States, Mohave County is three-quarters federal tax-exempt land and has “some of the highest solar and wind energy potential in the nation,” he told the subcommittee on energy and mineral resources.

Johnson, who was also representing the National Association of Counties, said counties like the legislation because it requires that royalties generated from renewable energy projects on federal land be shared -- 25 percent to the affected state, 25 percent to the counties, 15 percent to the federal treasury, and 35 percent to a new fund - the “Renewable Energy Resource Conservation Fund”, which the bill establishes to mitigate the impacts of renewable development.

Under the current system, the oil and gas royalty rate is set at 12.5 percent and the receipts generated are split between the federal and state governments. Leases produced $1.8 billion in royalties for states in fiscal 2015. Geothermal leases produce a lot less - about $12 million per year, according to BLM. 

Johnson said that recent studies have found that with PLREDA in place, Mohave County would receive $519,375 in royalty payments annually from existing renewable energy projects, and the state of Arizona and its counties would receive nearly $4.6 million in new royalty revenue.

“These amounts would only grow as new projects come online,” Johnson said.

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Steve Moyer of Trout Unlimited told the committee that environmental groups like the legislation because it would dedicate revenue to a conservation fund that could be used to clean up abandoned mines and restore wildlife habitat.

Josh Nordquist, director of business development for renewable energy company Ormat Technologies, said the bill benefits geothermal by requiring BLM to establish priority areas for renewable energy projects. It also would streamline the permitting process by using BLM-prepared programmatic environmental impact statements as the foundation for future development.

Instead of conducting a new review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the bill would require BLM to “rely on the analysis in the programmatic (EIS) … to the maximum extent practicable when analyzing the potential impacts of the project.”

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., who called for a hearing in October on renewable energy issues on public lands, said time is running out for the legislation. “It's happening so late in this Congress, which limits the time to advance this bill through the committee and the full House,” he said.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., introduced the bill last year. It has 68 co-sponsors, 35 Democrats and 33 Republicans. A companion Senate measure was the subject of a hearing June 9, 2015.

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