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United States

Bush drives new land access guidelines

A federal agency mostly known for its management of 251,000 square kilometres of range land in the US is trying to make it easier for wind developers to get access to those lands. The Bureau of Land Management, which for years has been under fire for favouring ranching and petroleum and mineral exploration over environmental concerns and other public uses, has developed guidelines that set the rules for development along some of the windiest ridges in the West.

Access to US public lands is being made easier for wind plant developers as officials rise to the challenge of meeting more energy demand with domestic sources, as required by federal energy policy

A federal agency mostly known for its management of 251,000 square kilometres of range land in the US is trying to make it easier for wind developers to get access to those lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which for years has been under fire for favouring ranching and petroleum and mineral exploration over environmental concerns and other public uses, has developed guidelines that set the rules for development along some of the windiest ridges in the West.

Officials at BLM say the agency began pressing for the guidelines last year in response to one component of President George W Bush's energy policy that calls for an increased federal focus on renewables. That policy, which also pushes for more oil and gas development within US boundaries, is still hung up in Congress due to Democrat and Republican disagreements over contentious issues like oil exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the creation of a federal renewables portfolio standard.

"The BLM fully supports the President's National Energy Policy, which is aimed at developing domestic energy to reduce America's dependence on foreign sources of energy," says BLM Director Kathleen Clarke. "Along with traditional sources of energy produced from the public lands -- including coal, natural gas and oil -- renewable resources such as wind energy can play a important role in meeting American's energy needs."

The bureau's new Wind Energy Development Policy sets the rules on right of way, siting, environmental studies and rental fees, which should help agency field staff more quickly process the growing number of wind project applications it has been receiving, says BLM's Ray Brady. Wind development on BLM lands is not new. Over the past five years the agency has authorised 29 wind development applications, most in California and Wyoming, where wind projects covering 5000 acres of BLM land are already producing about 500 MW. But the quickened pace of new applications arriving at the agency has staff buried. "Clearly, we've had an increased interest in wind projects on public lands in the West," says Brady. The number of pending applications for wind projects, mostly for site testing, now stands at 29 in the high wind areas of Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, California, Wyoming and Washington.

The new policy's goal of processing wind project requests in a more timely way seems to be working already, according to Michael Heckler of Windlands Inc. His company is in the environmental review stage of a 200 MW wind project on BLM land in Idaho (Windpower Monthly, August 2002). Heckler says BLM's field office staff in Burley, Idaho, has been more diligent and is giving its full attention to the issues of his pending application.

first in line

Heckler also says, however, that applications on federal lands are "dramatically more expensive" than on private lands due to the time it takes to process an application and the additional environmental reviews. Still, the new policy lays out the extent of what's needed, he says, and it does offer some clarification on the exclusivity of a developer's rights. At one point, says Heckler, BLM was thinking about auctioning the right to develop a piece of land. Instead it has settled on the age-old western water law guidance of "first in time, first in line," which lowers the risk of spending time and money on developing a project, only to lose it in an auction.

Unlike developers of wind sites on private land, BLM is completely transparent with its system of rent. What is known about rent on private lands is based on what developers say, which has been reported to average around $2000 a turbine. Brady says BLM consulted with the wind energy industry, along with private appraisers, to develop the three-tiers of rent that it has published in its guidelines. The first two tiers set fixed prices for renting space on BLM land for meteorological towers and monitoring rights, while the third provides a formula for production rent based on a site's wind energy potential. Brady says the outcome of the formula is typical of what private landowners are paid, while Heckler says the rent "is not totally out of line" for an area with high wind speeds.

One final aspect of BLM's efforts to encourage wind development is the completion by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of a Western Wind Energy Resource Assessment, which maps and ranks the energy potential on BLM lands. Information will be put on BLM's web site.

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