The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently published Instruction Memorandum (IM) 2011-003, which updated existing guidance on rights-of-way for solar energy projects on federal lands. The memo “provides policy guidance on early coordination with Federal land managers and stakeholders, the term of solar energy right-of-way authorizations, diligent development requirements, bond coverage, Best Management Practices (BMPs), and BLM access to records.”
BLM’s stated goal in the solar energy arena is to “facilitate environmentally responsible development of solar energy projects on the public lands.” Commercial solar energy projects must submit applications to the BLM in order to be granted rights-of-way. The processing and authorization of such applications is pursuant to the BLM’s Rights-of-Way (ROW) regulations under 43 CFR Part 2800 (charmingly – and accessibly – laid out in Q&A format). The BLM rights-of-way webpage defines a ROW grant as “an authorization to use a specific piece of public land for a certain project, such as roads, pipelines, transmission lines, and communication sites. A ROW grant authorizes rights and privileges for a specific use of the land for a specific period of time.”
Because the Energy Policy Act aims for the approval of non-hydropower renewable energy projects of at least 10,000 megawatts on the public lands by 2015, BLM is giving special attention to renewables such as solar energy projects. Applications for these projects are being identified as “high priority” for purposes of processing. No utility-scale solar projects have been approved on BLM-managed land, but 188 applications are currently pending.
What with this special consideration, will the sun-drenched southwestern states (which boast some of the best solar radiation levels in the world) be inundated with large scale solar facilities? To make sure a swath of projects wouldn’t do more harm than good, the BLM is working with the Department of Energy to prepare a joint programmatic environmental impact statement assessing “the environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with solar energy development on BLM-managed lands in the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.”
The recently published guidance updates IM 2007-097, which establishes BLM’s policy for processing rights-of-way applications and evaluating the feasibility of installing solar energy systems. The guidance set forth will eventually be incorporated into BLM Manual 2801, Right-of-Way Management. Close on the heels of the updated guidance, law firm Orrick published an easily digestible Energy Update that addressed the revised policies point by point. The updated guidance is effective immediately.