The Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday said it will continue to accept solar project applications on public land, reversing an earlier decision to stop considering proposals for two years.
The decision appears to be a quick reaction to a backlash of complaints about the moratorium following a New York Times story about the controversial decision last week.
After receiving a flurry of applications, the bureau decided in May to stop accepting new applications so that it could carry out a comprehensive environmental analysis of solar developments’ potential impact on the vast public lands it manages in six western states. The environmental study was expected to take about two years.
The federal agency will now process new applications while carrying out the study, which will be used to determine whether proposed projects will be a good fit with the environment. The bureau is currently seeking public comments about the scope of the study.
Supporters of the moratorium said the government should first establish a national standard for measuring the environmental impact before considering more applications (see posts here and here). Solar energy developments could damage wildlife habitat even though they offer environmental benefits by producing clean energy. Several solar projects, such as one in Southern California which in undergoing hearings about the potential impact of the project on the endangered Mojave ground squirrel, have faced similar concerns.
The federal agency completed an environmental study for wind energy in 2005. It recently published a draft of an environmental study on geothermal energy projects and is looking for public comments.
But the solar project moratorium proved to be an unwise political move. Politicians local and national have been eager to show their support for renewable energy. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made an appearance at the headquarters of electric-car maker Tesla Motors two days ago to announce that Tesla would produce its new sedan, Model S, in California instead of New Mexico (see Tesla: We Will Build Electric Sedans in California).
Republican presidential candidate John McCain said that, if elected, he would set up a $300 million award for a cutting-edge battery technology to power cars. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, said he would invest $150 billion over 10 years for developing renewable energy.
“We heard the concerns expressed … about waiting to consider new applications,” said BLM Director James Caswell i n a statement. “By continuing to accept and process new applications for solar energy projects, we will aggressively help meet growing interest in renewable energy sources, while ensuring environmental protections.”
The moratorium would have applied to solar developments in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The BLM had received 125 applications before it imposed the ban in May.
The BLM manages 258 million acres, more public land than any other federal agencies. Most of them are in western states. The agency has long allowed grazing, mineral mining and energy developments by private companies.
Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said he supports the latest decision to accept new solar project applications. In a statement, he blamed the Bush administration for BLM’s decision to place a moratorium last month.
“We need to give the BLM and other agencies the staff and financial resources they need to conduct proper environmental reviews as expediently as possible,” Pope said. “This moratorium was simply one more symptom of the Bush disease – a pervasive rot that has rendered our federal government unwilling or unable to perform even its most basic functions.”