On July 27, 2012, the Department of the Interior (“DOI”) Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) and the Department of Energy (“DOE”) announced the availability of the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (“PEIS”) for solar energy development in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah in the Federal Register.  The PEIS, which DOI refers to as the “RoadMap” for solar energy development on public lands, evaluates: (1) the impact of the BLM’s Solar Energy Program on BLM-administered lands; and (2) new guidance from DOE to “further facilitate” utility-scale solar energy and work to mitigate associated environmental impacts.

The PEIS concludes that BLM’s proposed Solar Energy Program to support utility-scale (capable of generating 20 megawatts or more) solar energy development on BLM-administered lands in the 6 Western states listed above is expected to increase the pace of solar energy development, as well as provide a comprehensive approach in order to minimize potential adverse impacts, such as fragmentation of habitat, disturbance of land, and noise impact, among others.  If adopted, the PEIS states that the proposed program would allow for a more efficient and standardized permitting process for future solar energy development.  The proposed Solar Energy Program establishes “comprehensive” Right-of-Way authorization policies, as well as other policies intended to “avoid, minimize, and/or mitigate” potential adverse effects of solar energy development.  The program also identifies 17 Solar Energy Zones (“SEZ”) that BLM identifies as well-suited for utility-scale production of solar energy.  In addition to the SEZs, the BLM identified 19 million acres of “variance” areas for utility-scale solar energy development outside the SEZs, where developers would be required to adhere to a proposed variance process. 

The PEIS also includes BLM’s proposed incentives that it believes will “steer” utility-scale solar energy development towards the SEZs.  Those incentives include facilitating permitting of needed transmission to the SEZs, other programmatic design features (or mitigation requirements) for utility-scale solar, economic incentives for development in SEZs, and solar development on adjacent nonfederal lands.  The Solar Energy Program would also establish a collaborative process to identify new or expanded SEZs.  Notably, the DOI’s press release states that if developed, the 17 SEZs and variance areas could produce 23,700 megawatts of renewable energy.

The PEIS also evaluates DOE’s proposal to adopt environmental guidance to use in DOE- supported solar projects.  This guidance is intended to allow DOE to decide where to invest in technology and resources to minimize environmental impacts of solar technologies in DOE-supported solar-projects, and to facilitate utility-scale solar energy development.  The PEIS concludes that DOE’s proposed guidance would likely “minimize the potential adverse environmental impacts of solar energy development for DOE supported projects.”  

A notice of availability for the Final PEIS was published in the Federal Register on July 27, 2012, with a 30-day period for protest.  After this period, the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, can consider adopting the PEIS through a Record of Decision. 

The DOI press release is available here.  The PEIS is available here.