On February 11, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) introduced H.R. 6527, the “Emergency Solar Power Permit Act,” in response to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) effective freeze on approving solar project applications.A backlog of 130 pending applications currently exists dating back to 2005 without a single application being approved because BLM is waiting on Environmental Impact Statements from the applicants. The Emergency Solar Power Permit Act would waive the requirement to produce an Environmental Impact Statement in order to expedite the process and allow clean, environmentally friendly, renewable energy to begin development.
“Regulatory and political obstructionism has created this energy shortage that has lead to such high prices,” said Rohrabacher. “These bureaucratic impediments are now even damaging the possibility of fully utilizing solar energy which is the supposed darling of the environmental movement. This bill helps remove some of those regulatory roadblocks for solar energy and we need to be moving forward on all fronts to address the current energy crisis.”
According to a recent New York Times article, the BLM had “placed a moratorium on new solar projects on public land until it studies their environmental impact.” The moratorium on accepting applications has since been lifted, however, applications are still not being approved in a timely manner.
I believe part of reason the BLM was not (and is not) processing solar energy projects because they are in the process of preparing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on solar development across all BLM lands: http://solareis.anl.gov/. This was likely what the BLM talking about when they said they “placed a moratorium on new solar projects on public land until it studies their environmental impact.” However, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if this was also used by the Bush administration to clog up the works.
BLM prepared a Programmatic EIS on wind development in 2005 and Geothermal leasing in 2008. However, once this PEIS is finalized, I’m not sure if that would allow the BLM to perform less extensive Environmental Assessments (EAs) instead of the long and lengthy EISs. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) dictates when an EIS versus an EA should be performed and this is the crux of it: When environmental impacts are not “significant” (which is defined in NEPA and has been refined by the courts), a federal agency can prepare an EA and sign a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). However, when environmental impacts are significant, an EIS must be prepared. I didn’t know NEPA, the cornerstone of environmental laws, was “obstructionism” or a “bureaucratic impediment.”
While I support eliminating any impediments to solar development, I think we should level the playing field, not give solar projects a break compared to other projects of similar impact. For example, agencies have to prepare EISs for coal mines and natural gas/oil field development proposals, because these projects can have significant impacts. Couldn’t the same be said for a huge wind farm or several square miles of solar panels? Just one example of a significant impact from a large-scale solar project is the habitat is rendered completely unusable to wildlife, just as much as a strip mine and moreso than a gas field.
For this reason, this bill might not pass muster. We would need to change NEPA to say, “Agencies must prepare an EIS when environmental impacts are significant, unless the impacts are from solar projects.” This should be interesting to watch, especially the response from the environmental community, which advocate both for requiring extensive environmental analysis and pushing for renewable energy development.