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Obama Administration Finally Seeing the Light on Disturbed Land Solar?

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 4.47.39 PM-thumb-600x402-65541
Is Obama getting sensitized to the value of Western lands? | Photo: Mr. Wright/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Obama administration policy on development of renewable energy for the last six years has often been marked by intransigence against siting big solar and wind facilities on disturbed land rather than intact wildlife habitat. It's certainly been a frequent topic of our reportage here at ReWire. The Interior Department has often dismissed the notion of, for instance, including a "disturbed land alternative" in its environmental assessments of big desert solar facilities, even though Interior's colleagues at the EPA have been going to a lot of effort to catalog those very disturbed lands for potential renewable energy development.

Instead, the Administration has often seemed to pay no heed at all to the notion that all other things being equal, it's better to plunk a hundred thousand solar panels on an old landfill or pile of mine tailings than it is to bulldoze intact wildlife habitat for those solar panels, especially if the wildlife habitat is farther away from the people who need the power.

But a relatively obscure clause in a Presidential Memorandum issued last week may signal a change.

The memo, sent out by the White House on December 5, mandates that federal agencies will obtain 20 percent of the energy they consume from renewable sources. The memo comes with a schedule: 10 percent of agency energy must be renewable by 2015, 15 percent the year after, and 17.5 percent in 2018. To qualify, the energy sources must be new: there will be no buying into existing facilities' production.

The memo assigns on-site generation of renewable energy the highest priority, meaning that at least technically, agencies will have more incentives to develop generating capacity on their own lands and facilities. That means rooftop solar for administrative agencies, and possibly large solar arrays on military bases.

But the clause that made ReWire sit up and take notice was this, noted by the memo's authors as Section 1(d):

(d) Agencies shall consider opportunities, to the extent economically feasible and technically practical, to install or contract for energy installed on current or formerly contaminated lands, landfills, and mine sites.

Section 1(d) doesn't spell it out, but an "instead of on old-growth habitat or valuable agricultural lands" seems obviously implied.

To those who've been wondering why the Obama administration seems to have ignored its own EPA's RE-Powering America's Lands initiative, which has spent truckloads of tax dollars compiling and consolidating records on nearly 15 million acres of disturbed land for possible use as renewable energy sites, the 29 words in Section 1(d) are long overdue.

There's plenty of room for weaseling in the memo's language. An agency could well "consider" putting its solar on a landfill rather than a patch of desert tortoise habitat, then decide it's not "feasible" for some reason having to do with bureaucratic inertia. Witness the Bureau of Land Management's dismissal of a disturbed land alternative to the Soda Mountain Solar project next to the Mojave National Preserve. The agency said it can't propose an alternative site on disturbed land because there isn't enough disturbed land near the project site, despite the act that the builders plan to sell their power to urban Southern California utilities 150 miles away or more. Which means the project could much more efficiently be placed on urban Southern California's disturbed land.

And bear in mind that this memo is about agency energy procurement, not federal support for renewable energy development intended to supply consumer utilities with power. Even the strictest possible interpretation of this memo's Section 1(d) won't force federal agencies to "consider" a disturbed land alternative to renewable energy development if the agency isn't going to be the end user of the energy. The Interior and Energy departments' Solar Energy Zones, with their hundreds of thousands of acres of intact western wildlife habitat across six states, won't likely be affected by this memo in the slightest.

But this memo may well add rhetorical oomph to arguments over renewable project siting even if the projects won't be powering federal agencies. It's almost certain that this clause will find its way into a legal brief challenging some renewable energy project or other on intact habitat, if only because some enterprising attorney thinks it may bolster her arguments in an ethical and policy sense.

Even if not, it does offer activists concerned over loss of wild habitat the sense that someone, somewhere in the White House is paying attention to the importance of public lands. And that's something we could use more of from this administration.

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