Despite a growing consensus that the era of utility-scale solar on public lands is slowly drawing to a close, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has announced that it's taking measures to ensure that applications for solar and wind projects on the lands it manages are given higher priority than other potential uses. A new regulation to be adopted this week could ban new mining claims and other non-energy proposals from land on which the BLM is considering a solar or wind proposal.
The new rule, to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, would allow the BLM to "segregate" lands under consideration for solar or wind development to keep new mining claims from being filed there. The agency says the new regulation is needed to forestall conflicts between mining interests and renewable energy developers.
In a press release issued Monday, the BLM said that mining claims interfered with the processing of a number of the rights-of-way the agency has approved since 2009:
Since 2009, the BLM has approved 23 solar and 8 wind energy development right-of-way applications. In two proposed rights-of-way, mining claims were located after the right-of-way applications were submitted but before the rights-of-way could be authorized. In the two years before the interim temporary Final Rule went into effect, 437 new mining claims were located within wind energy right-of-way application areas in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming; another 216 new mining claims were located within solar energy right-of-way application areas.
The new rule is a final version of an interim policy the BLM has used since April 2011, under which the agency temporarily closed some land to new mining claims while it decided whether or not to approve rights of way for renewable energy projects on those lands.
According to the language in the new rule, the BLM suspects that some new mining claims are being filed on possible renewable energy development sites by people less interested in mining resources from the ground than money from corporate pockets:
In the BLM's experience, some of these mining claims are likely to be valid and/or filed without consideration of the pending ROW application, but others are likely to be speculative and not located for mining purposes. The latter are likely filed for no purpose other than to provide a means for the mining claimant to compel payment from the ROW applicant or grantee in exchange for relinquishing the mining claim. While it is relatively easy and inexpensive to locate a mining claim because a mining claim location requires no prior approval from the BLM, it can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly to extinguish a claim.
Mining claims, the majority of which are likely less spurious than those described above, are protected under federal law. A renewable energy project on land with active mining claims would either need to design around the claims to avoid interfering with them or buy the claimants out. Though the BLM's mandate is to manage for multiple uses of the lands it oversees, the agency seems to be saying it has determined that easy financing for solar and wind developers ranks among its highest management priorities:
For these reasons, leaving areas covered by a ROW application (which can take over a year to process) or areas identified for such an application, open to mining claim location creates uncertainty that could complicate the financing for energy project developers and institutions that finance such development, which ultimately interferes with the BLM's administration of the public lands.
Segregating potential renewable energy rights-of-way to prevent new mining claims wouldn't be automatic: the BLM says only certain proposed projects are likely to run the risk of minin claim conflicts. If the BLM does segregate a pending right-of-way, the ban on new claims would be effective for two years, or until the BLM lifts the segregation.