EDITORIAL: Expediting the process

The Obama administration has been an ardent supporter of green energy, but it can nevertheless still take years for federal bureaucrats to sign off on solar or wind projects slated for government land.

“I’d pick a solar project on private lands over public lands,” a rural Colorado elected official told The Wall Street Journal last week. “It’s going to be a lot quicker.”

Thanks largely to this slow-moving regulatory apparatus, the president’s “record on renewable energy projects on public lands is mixed,” noted an essay last year in High Country News.

But now the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing new regulations designed to make it more attractive for green energy companies to operate on federal property. The proposals would also mandate a competitive bidding process for parcels intended to ensure that taxpayers reap the maximum reward from such leases.

The Wind and Solar Leasing Rule would essentially create a handful of “designated leasing areas” in hopes of encouraging the development of renewable energy resources in those zones. Projects within these boundaries would benefit from quicker permitting and even financial incentives.

Nevada would be home to five such areas in the central and southern portions of the state.

The plan has the support of a wide-range of interests, including Taxpayers for Common Sense, The Nature Conservancy and The Wilderness Society. But the Journal reports that a handful of environmental groups and energy companies have reservations about the proposal, stemming from either cost concerns or the worries about the impact of such large projects on wildlife and other resources.

Whether the new rule will serve as an impetus for new wind and solar endeavors remains to be seen. At this point, the Journal reports that just nine solar plants and four wind projects operate on federal land — although several more have been approved — and renewable energy remains a tiny portion of the nation’s energy portfolio. While a 2014 auction in Lincoln County generated $5.8 million in payments from green energy firms, a similar attempt in Colorado failed to attract a single bid.

In addition, it would be nice if the proliferation of green energy interests wasn’t directly related to the billions in taxpayer subsidies available for renewable energy firms. The industry’s long-term viability depends on its ability to compete in the marketplace absent such handouts.

But to the extent that the federal government seeks to open up more land to renewable energy development, it only makes sense to expedite the regulatory process while ensuring taxpayers get a fair return.

The new rule has been in the pipeline for more than five years. There’s no need for delay. The BLM should finalize the regulation as soon as possible.

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