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Renewable Energy Bill: Something for Everyone on Public Lands?

PHOTO: Love 'em or hate 'em, wind turbines are here to stay in areas such as the Columbia River Gorge. A new bill in Congress would require competitive bids from developers to lease public land for wind and solar projects. Courtesy of TheGorge.com
PHOTO: Love 'em or hate 'em, wind turbines are here to stay in areas such as the Columbia River Gorge. A new bill in Congress would require competitive bids from developers to lease public land for wind and solar projects. Courtesy of TheGorge.com
February 12, 2013

PORTLAND, Ore. - Members of Congress from both parties in eight western states are backing a bill to increase renewable-energy development, protect public lands and wildlife, and provide a new income source for counties and states - simultaneously.

The measure, introduced Monday, is the Public Lands and Renewable Energy Development Act (HR 596). It would require wind and solar developers to compete for public land leases, bidding on the places they want to site their projects. Once those projects were up and running, they'd have to pay royalties.

The money would be divided among the state, counties, and the federal BLM, and just over one-third of it would go into a wildlife and land conservation fund. Oregon Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio are among co-sponsors of the measure.

Nic Callero, regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), thinks the plan would boost this type of development in Oregon.

"It's a relatively new idea for renewable energy projects," he said. "It's a system that we've already used on public lands for conventional energy projects, and what this does is, it basically evens the playing field for renewable projects, versus conventional oil and gas projects."

According to Callero, NWF believes a competitive leasing process also means developers will avoid controversial areas with critical habitat concerns, to save time and money.

Bob Rees, president of the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association, said hunters and fishermen have two big fears about energy development of any kind on public land: that it will damage fish and wildlife habitat, and that it will restrict access. But this bill addresses them both, he said.

"It just makes a lot of sense. It develops energy that this country is going to desperately need in the future, and more importantly - most importantly, in some people's minds - it's green energy, you know," Rees declared. "And that has a much smaller overall footprint on the environment."

The NWF reports that since 2007, just over 40 renewable energy projects have been approved on public land in the U.S. During the same time period, more than 7,000 oil and gas projects on public land were approved. Conservation groups are convinced this bill could pick up the pace for 'green' power.

The Senate version of the measure is expected to be heard in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR