Conservation & Clean Energy at the Bureau of Land Management

wind farm

Wind farm in the California desert

Credit: BLM

As we celebrate National Public Lands Day this Saturday we are shining a spotlight on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM manages one out of every 10 acres in the country from the iconic deserts of the Southwest to stunning coastlines of northern California. The lands managed by BLM are essential to addressing biodiversity conservation and climate resilience as well as preserving cultural assets and providing clean energy.

The BLM manages lands that have some of the world’s best renewable energy resources. From solar in the Mojave desert to wind in the Sagebrush Sea of Wyoming, the BLM is already playing a major role in generating renewable energy to help meet our climate goals. Developing these crucial resources in a way that protects other public land resources is an important balancing act.

Under the Obama administration the Department of the Interior adopted several key programs that have advanced an approach to this challenge now known commonly as “Smart from the Start” development. Under Smart from the Start, planning takes place at the landscape scale to identify lands that have high resource values that should be conserved and lands with lower resource values and high energy generation potential that may be appropriate for renewable energy development. BLM is charged with implementing innovative programs that enshrine the Smart from the Start approach including the Western Solar Plan and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

Through this approach land managers, policy makers and stakeholders can:

  • Assess development at a landscape scale, rather than making site by site project decisions on a first come, first serve basis
  • Guide development to lower conflict areas more appropriate for large scale development
  • Conserve lands that are ecologically important

With our clean energy goals more robust than ever, it’s never been more important to take this strategic approach to balancing conservation and clean energy on our public lands. Without this kind of thoughtful, landscape level planning it will not be possible to both meet our climate goals and achieve the critical goal of protecting 30% of our lands and waters by 2030 to fight biodiversity collapse. We can do both if we plan ahead and identify which lands must be permanently protected and which lands are appropriate for renewable energy development.

Here are five things that need to happen to keep advancing Smart from the Start renewable energy development on public lands:

  1. Revise the Western Solar Plan with robust public engagement to incorporate current data on species and ecosystems, updated technological requirements for solar installations, and identify new low conflict solar energy zones where needed.
  2. Advance the BLM’s renewable energy rulemaking started in 2021. In order to keep advancing the Smart from the Start paradigm this rulemaking must prioritize lower conflict applications in designated zones and address environmental justice concerns.
  3. Fully fund and staff the newly reconstituted Renewable Energy Coordination Offices (RECOs). BLM and inter agency personnel with relevant experience in renewable energy projects and energy infrastructure permitting must form the core staff of the RECOs.
  4. Support regional planning by providing sufficient staff and agency direction to develop plans that balance clean energy and conservation at the regional level through the Smart from the Start approach.
  5. Pass the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (PLREDA) -- a bipartisan proposal that NRDC has supported across several congresses. This legislation embraces aspects of the Smart from the Start approach and addresses onshore wind, solar, and geothermal projects.

The BLM plays a unique and pivotal role in balancing conservation, climate and clean energy on our public lands. The agency has already taken many important steps to strike this balance and now has the opportunity to build on that track record of success.



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