TRCP Responds to BLM Western Solar Development Proposal
Organization encourages BLM to conserve big game habitats & hunting and fishing areas as it advances solar development on public lands
Today, the Bureau of Land Management released a draft plan that—when completed—will guide utility-scale solar development on federal public lands across 11 western states. The draft is a proposed update of BLM’s 2012 Western Solar Plan, which identified areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah with high solar potential and low resource conflicts to streamline solar development. The update expands application of the Western Solar Plan to include potential solar development on public lands in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.
“We recognize that public lands in the west provide important options to help meet the nation’s renewable energy needs,” said Jon Holst, wildlife & energy senior advisor for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Our public lands also contain critical unfragmented habitats for fish and wildlife populations that offer world class hunting and angling opportunities. We will be looking at the details of this draft plan to make sure that the interests of hunters and anglers are incorporated.”
The TRCP and partners have been involved in BLM’s efforts to update the Western Solar Plan since scoping began in late 2022. The updated plan is an important step toward meeting the Administration’s goals of deploying 25 GW of renewable energy on public lands by 2025 and to have a 100 percent clean electricity grid by 2035. The BLM and Department of Energy estimate that approximately 700,000 acres of public lands will be needed to meet the Administration’s goals for solar deployment. The TRCP is committed to working with our membership, partners, state and local governments, and other key stakeholders to facilitate a successful outcome for the Western Solar Plan that advances the development of solar energy in a manner that also conserves our natural resources and sporting heritage.
This release kicks off a 90-day comment period where the public will have an opportunity to provide input on the alternatives and other management options presented by the BLM in the draft plan. Public input will inform a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision. The public can submit written comments through April 18, 2024. More details are available on BLM’s Solar Program website.
Why TRCP Supports BLM’s Proposed Updates to Oil and Gas Leasing
Updates will help reduce conflict between energy development and our sporting traditions
The Bureau of Land Management recently released a set of proposed changes to its oil and gas leasing program. The reforms would apply to hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands coveted by hunters and anglers. Fully 90 percent of the 245 million acres of federal land under BLM authority are currently available for oil and gas leasing and development, with more than 26 million acres under lease in 2021.
In an effort to address potential impacts to wildlife habitat and public access, sportsmen and sportswomen have been working to promote responsible approaches to energy development for decades. While the debate over domestic energy policy can be heated, it is hard to argue the fact that many of BLM’s existing rules governing oil and gas leasing on public lands are at least half a century old, and they have often put oil and gas leasing and development at odds with other resource values. The BLM’s proposed reforms will modernize its onshore oil and gas leasing regulations to help reduce the conflict between oil and gas development and other important multiple-uses, including hunting, fishing, and wildlife habitat.
The proposed rule would help reduce conflict, in-part, by cutting down on the practice of speculative leasing so that those lands can instead be managed for other uses—like habitat conservation to support abundant wildlife populations. Speculative leasing occurs when an oil and gas company leases land with no real potential for economically viable oil and gas production—preventing BLM from being able to effectively manage that land for other important multiple-uses that may not be compatible with oil and gas. The rule addresses this by prioritizing leasing in places with existing oil and gas infrastructure or high production potential. The proposed rule would also implement the Inflation Reduction Act’s mandated reforms of the oil and gas leasing program, ensuring taxpayers get a fair return for the development of public minerals and ensuring responsible development when public land oil and gas resources are leased to private companies.
The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 requires federal regulators to ensure adequate bond coverage before oil and gas companies can drill on federal land. The proposed rule would additionally reform the bonding rates that oil and gas companies must post in order to ensure public lands are cleaned up when companies abandon wells—a provision that was not included in the Inflation Reduction Act but has long been supported by several organizations in the hunt-fish community.
Specific provisions of the proposed rule include:
Bonding requirements: The rule proposes to increase the minimum lease bond amount (the upfront fee to ensure eventual well cleanup) to $150,000, and the minimum statewide bond to $500,000. The rule also proposes to eliminate nationwide and unit bonds. The existing lease bond amount of $10,000—established in 1960—no longer provides an adequate incentive for companies to meet their reclamation obligations, nor does it cover the potential costs to reclaim a well should this obligation not be met. The current, outdated bond requirement increases the risk that taxpayers will end up covering the cost of reclaiming wells in the event the operator refuses to do so or declares bankruptcy. The Department of the Interior has made available more than $1 billion in the past two years from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells on federal, state, and private lands. This proposed rule aims to prevent that burden from falling on the taxpayer in future years.
Protecting Wildlife and Cultural Resources: The rule would help steer oil and gas development away from important wildlife habitat or cultural sites, and toward lands with existing infrastructure or high production potential.
Royalty rates: Proposed changes to royalty rates reflect provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act. Royalty rates for leases issued for 10 years after the effective date of the Inflation Reduction Act are 16.67 percent. After August 16, 2032, the rate of 16.67 percent will become the minimum royalty rate.
Minimum bids: The proposed rule includes a provision of the Inflation Reduction Act that increased the national minimum bid from $2 per acre to $10 per acre. The minimum acceptable bid is important because it establishes the starting bid at the BLM’s oil and gas lease auctions. A fair rate of $10 will help ensure that only lands with actual development potential are leased at auction.
Base, or minimum, rental rate: Pursuant to the Inflation Reduction Act, for leases issued in the 10 years after its enactment, the proposal includes a rental of $3 per acre, or a fraction thereof, per year during the first 2-year period beginning upon lease issuance, $5 per acre per year, or a fraction thereof, for the following 6 years, and then $15 per acre, or a fraction thereof, per year thereafter. After August 16, 2032, those rental rates will become minimums and are subject to increase.
Expressions of Interest: The Inflation Reduction Act established a new fee for expressions of interest. The proposed rule includes that fee, which is $5 per acre, or a fraction thereof. Requiring a fee for Expressions of Interest will help reduce speculative leasing.
Final Thoughts and How to Get Involved
We understand that most Americans still drive gasoline-powered vehicles and don’t want to be hit at the pump. These updates will not impact domestic energy production but will ensure taxpayers receive a fair rate of return on that development, while reducing conflict between energy development and our sporting traditions.
The proposed Oil and Gas Rule, in concert with other ongoing BLM efforts including the Public Lands Rule, the Wind and Solar Rule, and updating the Western Solar Plan, is an important part of a comprehensive approach to managing public lands to bring energy development into the 21st century, while maintaining robust wildlife populations, access, and opportunities for future generations of hunters and anglers. You can find these documents on BLM’s website at blm.gov.
We support these efforts and encourage you to get involved. BLM has announced a 60-day public comment period on the proposed Oil and Gas Rule and will be holding a series of public meetings. Look for future communication here at trcp.org and on our social media for updates on the rulemaking.
Examining Alaska’s Biggest Oil Drilling Project in Decades
Breaking down the recent decision to approve the Willow oil project in Alaska, which also requires new habitat safeguards for the North Slope
This week, the Biden Administration approved a scaled-back version of a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The decision to greenlight the ConocoPhillips Willow project was announced on Monday, following many months of consultation with elected officials, local communities, Alaska Native leaders, and other stakeholders.
As a non-partisan conservation organization that supports collaborative solutions to complex natural resource management issues, the TRCP team feels a responsibility to guide hunters and anglers through the heated rhetoric around this announcement. Here’s our topline assessment of the decision to approve the biggest oil field in Alaska in decades, and what it could mean for important wildlife habitat in Northwest Alaska.
What Is the Willow Project and Where Would It Be Constructed?
Willow is currently the largest proposed oil drilling project on America’s public lands. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that the project could produce up to 576 million barrels of oil over the 30-year life of the project. At its peak, Willow could pump out up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, or about 1.5 percent of all U.S. oil produced daily.
The Willow project would be constructed in the area known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. At more than 23 million acres, this expanse is the nation’s single largest tract of undeveloped public land. The region is home to several Alaska Native villages and provides important habitat for caribou, between 80 and 90 species of birds, and polar and grizzly bears.
The NPR-A has been reserved for oil development for many decades, and also includes directives from Congress to ensure the maximum protection of fish and wildlife habitat for Teshekpuk Lake, the Utukok River area, and other areas designated by the Secretary of the Interior. Oil production was not economically feasible until 2015, and the vast landscape has remained mostly intact and wild.
What Is the Willow Project Decision and How Has It Changed?
The Department of the Interior approved a scaled-down version of the Willow project, denying two of the five proposed drill sites. By reducing the project’s drill pads and surface infrastructure, the DOI is decreasing Willow’s footprint on public lands while ensuring the project remains economically viable. This balance is important because ConocoPhillips has held lease rights in the NPR-A since the late 1990s, and the leases are regarded as binding agreements. If the Interior Department had not approved Willow, the energy company could have sued the federal government and, if successful, been awarded billions in damages. Then, after a costly legal battle, ConocoPhillips could still have been allowed to drill.
Forced by a federal judge to address the flaws in the previous administration’s environmental analysis of Willow, the Bureau of Land Management and Interior used this review process to craft a solution that respects the existing leases while mitigating the project by securing additional safeguards for important habitat.
There is fairly broad political support for the project across Alaska, including among the bipartisan congressional delegation, the state legislature, and the Alaska Federation of Natives. In the North Slope region, support has been described as a “majority consensus,” although notable opposition and concern about subsistence impacts have been expressed across the region and particularly from Nuiqsut, the community closest to the proposed development.
Environmental groups and climate activists are deeply concerned about the expected greenhouse gas emissions from the project. The BLM’s analysis estimates that using the oil produced by the Willow project would result in 239 metric tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year.
What Does the Willow Project Mean for Wildlife Habitat in the Northwest Arctic?
The Department’s Willow decision reduces the amount of surface infrastructure within ecologically sensitive areas, such as yellow-billed loon nesting areas, caribou calving grounds, and caribou migration routes. Although scaled down, the Willow project still carries impacts to habitat, wildlife and subsistence that should be minimized. For example, the approved version of the project has 21,114 fewer acres of caribou disturbances than the project proponent’s plan. Yet even with mitigation measures in place, some unavoidable impacts to caribou would occur.
Willow would also result in 532 acres of lost wetlands, 619 acres of potential polar bear habitat disturbances, and 17,037 acres of disturbances for birds. Durable mitigation, monitoring, and enforcement will be critical to ensuring development near Willow’s drill sites is least impactful to the region’s unique wildlife resources and hunting traditions.
What Other Conservation Measures Is the Biden Administration Considering in the Northwest Arctic?
In tandem with the Willow decision, the Interior Department recently announced a new public process to consider additional safeguards for more than 13 million acres of important habitat within the NPR-A for grizzly and polar bears, caribou, and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. These safeguards would be focused on the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay Special Areas. The NPR-A protections would bar development from landing in the reserve near Teshekpuk Lake.
The department also plans to “complete protections of the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean from any future oil and gas leasing” by withdrawing 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from development.
What Is TRCP’s Take on the Willow Decision?
Our team at the TRCP supports the transition to cleaner energy, and we know that will take some time. Domestic oil production efforts—assuming the impacts to wildlife and local residents can be minimized—can be valuable bridges while we continue to reduce the demand for fossil fuels.
While this decision is far from perfect, as few real-world outcomes are, the TRCP believes the BLM attempted to thread a needle on the Willow project in working to offset impacts with conservation gains. Now, the TRCP calls on the administration to follow through with its commitments to increasing conservation measures and subsistence safeguards in the region and to do so in a timely manner.
Why We Care About BLM’s Plan to Expand Solar Development on Public Lands
What hunters and anglers need to know about implications of expanding utility-scale solar on public lands
The TRCP has long worked to defend a balance of the many demands on our public lands, which sustain so many of our hunting and fishing opportunities in the U.S. The push for increased renewable energy production on public lands is creating new challenges that we are doing our best to address with public land managers.
There are, however, trade-offs that the BLM must consider when updating its Western Solar Plan. After touring several utility-scale solar facilities myself, I hesitate to enthusiastically endorse the widespread deployment of this type of development on our public lands. My unease comes from the fact that unlike other forms of energy development—such as wind, or even oil and gas—utility-scale solar generating facilities are usually high-fenced and allow for no other uses of the land within their boundaries. This exclusive use of the land can span thousands of acres for a single solar facility and will cover hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands to meet the administration’s goals. The magnitude of habitat removal and loss of public access from the BLM’s proposed expansion of utility-scale solar development on public lands is unprecedented.
Even with the most careful planning, the expansive size of utility-scale solar developments may have unintended consequences for habitat connectivity and migratory wildlife like big game. A poorly sited solar development in Wyoming that blocked a migration route and forced more than 1,000 pronghorn into a nearby highway right-of-way is a recent reminder of the potential for unintended consequences from solar development. The bitter irony is that these same species that migrate to access critical resources for survival will need large, connected landscapes more than ever to adapt to a changing climate.
I am reminded of a recent quote from Dan Ashe, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who said that addressing climate change will not, by itself, reverse the trend of increasingly widespread habitat fragmentation and the loss of wildlands and wildlife. “The lie is that if we address the climate crisis, we will also solve the biodiversity crisis,” said Ashe.
There are also implications for public access to public lands. A friend of mine recently showed up at his favorite spot to hunt pronghorn and found it fenced and covered with solar panels. Similarly, I was devastated to find out that my best dove hunting location has been approved for utility-scale solar development. I’m left wondering if the biological and social costs of developing large solar facilities on intact, otherwise undisturbed public lands might outweigh the incremental benefits they will provide in our fight to save the climate.
I was somewhat relieved to find out that I am not alone in thinking that utility-scale solar development might not be the highest and best use of our precious public lands. The public comments during the BLM’s scoping meetings on its Western Solar Plan revision were almost universally opposed to expanding utility-scale solar development on public lands.
These comments come in the context of explosive year-over-year increases in recreational demand on our public lands, and an article in High Country News revealing that if solar panels were put on top of big box stores in the 11 Western states targeted by the BLM, they would generate more than 31 million megawatt-hours of electricity—vastly exceeding the administration’s goals. While there are significant logistical and regulatory constraints to increasing distributed solar generation on big box stores and other existing developments, the public is asking why we aren’t tackling these problems head-on before we further compromise our public lands with additional utility-scale solar development.
Final Thoughts and How to Get Involved
The TRCP and our partners came together during the BLM’s public scoping comment period to provide detailed recommendations on how to minimize the impacts of utility-scale solar development on public lands while increasing generating capacity. Specifically, we urged officials to focus development on previously disturbed lands and exclude areas with high habitat or recreational value. You can still join us by commenting when the BLM releases a draft programmatic environmental impact statement—likely late this summer or early next fall. Look for future communications here at trcp.org and on our social media for how to get involved when the draft is released.
The 118th Congress is now underway, with narrow majorities in both the House and Senate and a considerable workload in the coming year. Fortunately, conservation issues have a way of garnering bipartisan agreement—a necessity as Congress takes up landmark legislation like the 2023 Farm Bill. The TRCP and our partners look forward to working with both sides of the aisle to advance conservation solutions in the coming months.
Here’s what’s at the top of our list for habitat and access in 2023.
Investing in Landowner-Led Conservation
Providing over $6 billion each year for voluntary, incentive-based conservation, the Farm Bill is the biggest piece of legislation impacting fish and wildlife in the U.S. Congress crafts a new Farm Bill every five years, and with the last bill expiring in September, 2023 is when decisions will be made that shape habitat on private lands for half a decade.
That is why the TRCP and our partner groups have been hard at work over the past several months to develop a comprehensive platform for what hunters and anglers would like to see in the 2023 bill.
This includes tripling investment in the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which provides dollars directly to state agencies to expand local walk-in hunting access opportunities by working with willing landowners. VPA-HIP provides a significant return on investment, with $5.20 in economic activity for every dollar invested in the program. That supports not just the landowners that choose to enroll, but also local businesses like game processors, diners, motels, gas stations, and more. The access, of course, is a boon for sportsmen and sportswomen, particularly in states where there are few public lands. In fact, when polled, nearly 60 percent of hunters in Illinois said that the land made available through the Illinois Recreational Access Program was the only huntable acreage accessible to them.
Beyond VPA-HIP, hunters and anglers are looking to lawmakers to improve the Conservation Reserve Program to ensure it remains a premier tool for habitat conservation, prioritize the enrollment of conservation easements to keep working lands and their habitats in place, and ensure that wildlife remain a co-equal focus of USDA conservation programs as climate mitigation becomes a growing priority in agriculture.
Improving Recreation Opportunities on Public Lands
As lawmakers negotiated an end-of-year funding deal in late 2022, a proposed package of recreation and public lands bills wound up on the cutting room floor and should receive top billing in 2023.
This starts with the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act, a bipartisan package of bills developed by Senators Manchin and Barrasso to enhance recreation opportunities on public lands. Included are bills directing the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to expand access to shooting ranges and complete road-use planning on their lands. Other bills would streamline permitting processes for guides and outfitters, limit the spread of invasive species, support gateway communities, and make it easier for outdoorsmen and women to experience our vast public lands.
Providing Necessary Resources for State Wildlife Management
For more than a century, sportsmen and sportswomen have led the charge on new ways to invest in fish and wildlife habitat. That leadership role continues in 2023 as we look for a way to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, landmark legislation that would provide $1.4 billion annually in dedicated funding to state wildlife agencies to conserve species of greatest concern. Not only would this new funding restore habitat and benefit hunters and anglers, it would also keep those species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, minimizing untold costs to the energy industry, developers, and small businesses.
The RAWA was widely celebrated, enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and nearly made it to the finish line in 2022. Now, its base of support is greater than ever before. Hunters, anglers, conservationists, recreators, landowners, and business owners agree on the importance of passing RAWA. While the path is never easy, the TRCP and our partners will be working to expand congressional support, secure approval in the House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and send RAWA to the president’s desk in the 118th Congress.
Accelerating Conservation and Restoration Projects
We’re expecting Congress to consider legislation to improve project approvals—especially for energy development, mining, and other infrastructure projects—early in 2023. It may be a surprise to some that challenges with permitting and approvals don’t only slow down development projects, but also the stream and wetland restoration, forest health, and other environmentally beneficial projects. Costly and often redundant planning processes discourage local partners from participating and result in wasted time and energy while federal funds remained locked up with the agencies, rather than benefitting fish and wildlife.
Additionally, when it comes to improving mining and renewable energy development on public lands, hunters and anglers have long fought for bipartisan solutions like the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act and Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act. PLREDA, for example, would balance renewable energy development and habitat needs, while funding for fish and wildlife conservation projects. The Good Samaritan legislation would reduce existing barriers to abandoned hard rock mine cleanup, making it easier for local partners to help improve water quality and habitat.
Accelerating conservation and restoration projects will ensure that the funds made available by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other recent legislative successes touch down on the landscape. In the year ahead, the TRCP will be engaged on both sides of the aisle, bringing conservation and habitat restoration priorities to the permitting conversation taking place in Congress.
For more information, and to take action in support of these critical conservation priorities in the year ahead, visit the TRCP Action Center. To follow important conservation legislation as it makes its way through Congress, follow @theTRCP on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Top photo by Aaron James.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
CHEERS TO CONSERVATION
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.