A New BLM Rule Affecting Development

by Kevin Emmerich, Cofounder of Basin & Range Watch

The vast Amargosa Desert by Death Valley National Park has remained mostly unchanged for the 32 years I have lived in the region. It lies mostly in Nevada, includes unique wetlands at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, the Devil’s Hole, and endless viewsheds, as well as burrowing owls, kit foxes, and a host of endemic plants and insects. A population of sand dwelling Mojave fringe-toed lizards was recently discovered near Big Dune. While most of the California side is protected in one way or another, the Nevada side has remained open for development for decades, but until now there has been little interest.

At the end of June, 2023, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned off four large parcels of BLM lands in the Amargosa Desert for large-scale solar leasing – totaling 23,675 acres or 39 square miles. In all, 105 million dollars were spent!

Two of the parcels were in the Amargosa Solar Energy Zone, an 8,000 acre parcel of land established under the 2012 Western Solar Plan.The plan was intended to expedite solar development on public lands regionally but direct it toward designated “Solar Energy Zones” that were said to have some of the least conflicts. But the plan also created 22 million acres of “Variance Lands” that are open to solar development with some additional scrutiny. The problem with the Solar Energy Zones is that solar developers greatly dislike the upfront filing fees and were equally not displeased with the competitive bidding process they needed to engage in. As a result, most solar applications ended up on the variance lands, many located right next to the Amargosa Solar Energy Zone.

The other two parcels were left out of the Western Solar Plan review and the BLM sees them as easier to lease to developers.

On June 16, 2023, the BLM published a proposed rule that would revise the agency’s existing regulations for wind and solar rights-of-way and leases on public lands. The goal is to promote the development of renewable energy on public lands and deliver greater certainty for the private sector. The rule would generally eliminate some of the fees and revise the competitive leasing process to make it less expensive for developers. Among the major changes:

  1. Rental rates and capacity fees for solar and wind rights-of-way would be adjusted and reduced. The Energy Act of 2020 modified the Federal Land Management Policy Act so these fees could be specifically reduced for solar and wind developers. Solar Developers must now pay a multicomponent charge for acreage rents, a capacity fees, and for competitive bids. This would be reduced to an acreage rent or capacity rent.
  2. A capacity fee would be assessed based on wholesale power prices and the actual energy produced by a facility rather than base it on an estimate of the energy that could be generated at a facility and additionally an acreage fee based on per-acre values for pastureland would be implemented. [I may not have understood this correctly.]
  3. The existing regulations require the BLM to use a competitive process to lease lands within Solar Energy Zones. The new rule would give the BLM discretion to use a competitive process both within and outside of Solar Energy Zones.
  4. The new rule would revise the BLM prioritization process. The prioritization process was created in 2016 gave BLM the discretionary authority to place project proposals with high or low conflicts in high, medium or low priority status. The new rule would direct BLM to consider factors that are more favorable to solar and wind developers.
  5. Right-of-way grants for solar and wind developers would be extended from 30 years to 50 years.

Kevin Emmerich is a former park ranger and field biologist. He has lived in the Mojave Desert for thirty years. Together with his wife, they founded the non-profit conservation organization Basin & Range Watch which advocates for environmentally responsible stewardship of the American southwestern deserts.