The White House has announced its choice for the new head of the Bureau of Land Management, and the nomination may well signal an intent to continue the aggressive development of renewable energy facilities on public lands that has characterized the Obama administration's energy policy over last five years.
Nominee Neil Kornze, who has been BLM's Principal Deputy Director and Acting Director since March, was a main architect of the Obama administration's public lands solar policy during his tenure as Acting Deputy Director for Policy and Programs from October 2011 through March 2013. He played a major role in developing the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar development in six southwestern states, the cornerstone of the administration's renewable energy policy also known as the Western Solar Plan.
The Plan established 445 square miles of Solar Energy Zones where solar energy development would be encouraged, along with almost 30,000 square miles of "variance" lands which would also be opened up for solar development. Most of the area designated as Solar Energy Zones is in California, with more than half the total -- 231 square miles -- in Riverside County.
"Neil has helped implement forward-looking reforms at the BLM to promote energy development in areas of minimal conflict, drive landscape-level planning efforts, and dramatically expand the agency's use of technology to speed up the process for energy permitting," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a press release announcing the nomination.
The Elko, Nevada-born Kornze would replace fellow Nevadan Bob Abbey, who stepped down as BLM Director in May 2012.
Prior to coming on board the BLM in 2011, Kornze worked as Senior Policy Advisor on public lands issues with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. During his time with Reid's office Kornze crafted Reid's public lands renewables policy, as well as advising the Senator on issues ranging from wildlife to recreation to mining.
"Raised in Elko, Nevada, he has seen firsthand the critical role that public lands play in the economies of Nevada and other Western states. Neil was a trusted advisor of mine for many years and I am fully confident he will be a successful BLM Director," said Senator Reid.
The nomination of a main architect of the Western Solar Plan to run the agency responsible for implementing that plan seems to suggest that the administration doesn't intend much of a course change on public lands solar development, despite the striking shift in the solar market away from remote utility-scale solar projects on public lands.
Kornze has also worked on conventional energy development on public lands during his tenure as BLM's acting chief, including helping to craft a recent industry-friendly draft policy on fracking.
But Kornze has got to get the job first, and according to a report Friday Roll Call, some politicians from his home state may ask some pointed questions during Kornze's confirmation process. At issue is the sage grouse, the high desert bird that has become a focal point in Nevada politics in much the same way the spotted owl was in the timber wars of the 1990s.
"The BLM is in the process of making decisions about sage grouse conservation that could have an enormous impact on Nevada's economy," Republican Nevada Senator Dean Heller told Roll Call. "As a member of the Committee reviewing this nomination, I look forward to discussing this issue and many others with my fellow Nevadan as we work through the confirmation process."
Some environmental activists are expressing concern over Kornze's attitude toward public lands as a common legacy of the American people. Janine Blaeloch, who heads up the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, is one such person. "When Harry Reid was pushing public land swaps to benefit developers in Las Vegas, I met with Kornze in Reid's office," Blaeloch told ReWire. "It was the coldest reception I have ever gotten. Kornze just could not understand why someone from Seattle would care at all even if every last bit of public land in the Las Vegas Valley was privatized and sold off.
"I hope Kornze has learned since then that public lands belong to all of us," Blaeloch added.