In a letter to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, Senator Dianne Feinstein expressed dismay with the slow Federal Government permitting process for solar projects proposed for private land. In the letter, the Senator points out that renewable energy projects in California proposed for BLM (public) land benefit from a speedy permitting process, while projects proposed for private land languish because specific government agencies do not share the same commitment to a speedy process as much as BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Energy Commission (CEC).
This bureaucratic slow down could dissuade more energy companies from developing on private land, which is likely to be of less significant biological value and have less impact on the Mojave Desert. Particularly because energy companies are hurrying to complete certification before the end of the year so they can qualify for Department of Energy sponsored loans.
So what administrative road blocks are slowing down the permitting process for development on private land?
If you are an energy company and you propose building on BLM land (which is more likely to impact sensitive desert habitat), the California Energy Commission will work with Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM to quickly prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS). The EIS is a prerequisite to having the project approved, assuming the EIS determines that the impact on the desert can be mitigated. The Department of Energy, which will issue the government backed loans to the company, will accept the environmental review process led by the BLM, which serves as the lead agency for public land cases. The Department of Energy cannot issue the loans until an acceptable environmental impact statement is completed.
If an energy company proposes development on private lands, the lead agency for the environmental review process will be the Department of Energy in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service cannot begin the environmental review until the Department of Energy (DOE) takes up the application. Apparently the Department of Energy has been slow to take up private land development applications, perhaps waiting for the CEC approval.
Abengoa Solar project proposed development on disturbed private land west of Barstow and has been slowed down by the DoE. Abengoa contacted Feinstein's office for support, probably resulting in her letter to the Secretary of Interior. Abengoa Solar is at risk of not receiving Federally backed loans because the Department of Energy has not yet consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service to begin the review process.
You will note in previous posts that the CEC has submitted its staff assessment and EIS for Abengoa. Apparently CEC's environmental assessment will not be accepted by the Department of Energy, which will have to conduct another review in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service. However, as noted in the previous post, the bureaucratic process is not the only threat to Abengoa. The CEC also requested that Abengoa Solar alter its design to involve "dry-cooling," since the current design would required millions of gallons of water a year to cool the plant.
Either way, hopefully the Department of the Interior works with DoE and Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that projects based on private land get their fair shot at Federal loans and a speedy review process so that more energy companies consider development on disturbed lands as a viable option.