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BLM to Make Haste on Renewable Project Review

While the Interior Department announced last week it is expanding and lengthening the process for permitting of oil and natural gas drilling on government lands (see related story), the department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has scheduled 31 renewable energy projects for fast-track environmental and public review. This will enable the projects to meet the end of the year deadline to qualify for funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

BLM Director Bob Abbey said his agency is committed to speedy action on the projects (14 solar, seven wind, three geothermal and seven electric transmission). They range in scale from as small as 24 MW up to 986 MW. "They represent the first generation of large-scale renewable energy projects to be carefully sited on public lands over the next several years," Abbey said.

Fast-track projects are advanced enough in the permitting process that they could potentially be cleared for approval by December, thus making them eligible for economic stimulus funding under ARRA. "The fast-track process is about focusing our staff and resources on the most promising renewable energy projects," said Abbey, "not about cutting corners, especially when it comes to environmental analyses or opportunities for public participation." All renewable energy projects proposed for BLM-managed lands will receive the full environmental review required by the National Environmental Protection Act and will include the same opportunities for public involvement required for all other land-use decision making by the BLM, the agency said.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar called for the BLM to establish a network of renewable energy coordination offices that would include appropriate BLM staff and resources from other federal and state agencies to assist in the processing of applications. So far the BLM has established the offices in California, Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming, where the majority of the existing workload for renewable energy applications and projects is currently located. The BLM has also identified nearly 23 million acres of public land with solar energy potential in six southwestern states and more than 20 million acres of public land with wind energy potential in 11 western states. It has completed programmatic environmental impact studies (PEIS) for wind and geothermal development and is working on a PEIS for solar development.

The solar PEIS has preliminarily identified 24 study areas on BLM-administered land in six western states. The BLM would evaluate these areas for their environmental and resource suitability for large-scale solar energy production. The objective is to provide landscape-scale planning and zoning for solar projects on BLM lands in the West, allowing a more efficient process for permitting and siting responsible solar development.

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