Groups question oil, gas leases in BLM ‘solar areas’

Some conservation groups fear proposed oil and gas leasing north of Mack could eclipse, as it were, the possibility for solar energy development in an area the Bureau of Land Management has identified as having good potential for the latter.

The Wilderness Society, Conservation Colorado and Western Colorado Congress say oil and gas leasing there would preclude the ability of the area to be used for producing clean, renewable energy — a point disputed by the BLM and David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

The acreage at issue is a portion of more than 27,000 acres involving 28 parcels that the BLM has proposed offering in a December lease sale, including about 22,300 acres in Mesa County and about 5,000 acres in Garfield County. Much of the acreage proposed for the lease sale lies below the Bookcliffs on both sides of Colorado Highway 139 in western Mesa County.

Six of the parcels largely overlap a “solar emphasis area” the BLM identified west of Highway 139 in the resource management plan it approved in 2015 for its Grand Junction Field Office, the conservationists say. That plan identified two solar emphasis areas, the other lying northeast of Fruita, with a combined acreage of about 8,700 acres. It also identified a 2,400-acre area south of Palisade as an emphasis area for wind energy development.

The agency plans to issue its sale notice for the December auction on Sept. 8. The conservation groups raised their solar-energy concern with the BLM in a letter submitted to the agency in June.

They wrote that “the proposed leases almost entirely cover the Solar Emphasis Area, meaning that BLM would be essentially unable to encourage or authorize solar energy development in this Solar Emphasis Area at all, completely contravening the management direction that BLM adopted for this area as recently as 2015.”

FORECLOSING ON SOLAR

Alex Daue, a renewable energy expert for The Wilderness Society, and Scott Braden, who works in Grand Junction for Conservation Colorado, said that the BLM is acting inconsistently in offering oil and gas leasing in an area identified as having good potential for solar energy development.

“Our point is simply by leasing, by creating an encumbrance, that that could become a hindrance to developing that solar resource and possibly be foreclosing that future development,” Braden said.

Daue believes the lease proposal reflects the Trump administration’s focus on putting fossil fuel development above other forms of energy development, following years of progress by the BLM in facilitating development of clean, renewable energy. The Wilderness Society points to BLM statistics indicating it has approved enough renewable energy projects to power 7 million homes, and that BLM-approved projects that have become operational since 2011 have provided 9,000 construction and operations jobs and $13.8 billion in capital investments.

“Our public lands are playing a significant and growing role in supporting America’s clean energy economy,” Daue said.

 

ROOM FOR BOTH

Katie Stevens, manager of the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office, believes solar facilities can coexist with oil and gas development on the same acreage.

“We think they can be compatible with oil and gas. It’s not like (oil and gas development) takes up the whole landscape,” she said.

She elaborated in an email, “Federal oil and gas leases do not grant exclusive use of the land to the oil and gas lessee. Modern development techniques use a smaller footprint these days than they used to, so the area could likely accommodate both renewable and subsurface energy sources, depending largely on parcel size and topography — and on the presence of sensitive resources that we’d consider in siting for both uses.”

“If we receive and approve solar installations, it would potentially make oil and gas siting more difficult, but we could consider that when we lease for oil and gas if facilities are present in the future.”

Daue acknowledged the possibility of the one use not excluding the other.

“However, I think that any kind of encumbrance on the land is going to be something that any solar developer is going to be taking into account when they look into potential development,” he said.

A photovoltaic solar project area entails an exclusive use of the land where it’s built, he said.

“I can’t imagine how you’d have oil and gas infrastructure and solar development on the same acres.”

In their June letter, the groups contend that the BLM acknowledged the potential for conflict between the two uses in language included in its proposed oil and gas management amendment (since finalized) to its resource management plan for its White River Field Office in Meeker.

They say that language stated that areas closed to oil and gas leasing “indirectly limit the potential for oil and gas developments to preclude other land authorizations not related to oil and gas (e.g., renewable energy developments, transmission lines) in those areas.”

 

FALSE CHOICES

Ludlam contends that solar energy and natural gas are highly compatible. At one time the largest solar power producer in western Colorado was WPX Energy, he said. WPX, which since has sold its local oil and gas assets to Terra Energy Partners, used solar panels on its numerous oil and gas locations to power things such as telemetry equipment.

He said there have been conversations between the solar and oil and gas industries on how solar arrays could be located on oil and gas properties so both forms of energy could be produced, given the rights of way and infrastructure that already have been created. He also pointed to the flexibility oil and gas companies have demonstrated in choosing locations for well pads and other facilities in a way that accommodates other surface considerations.

Ludlam said The Wilderness Society frequently presents false choices involving supposed mutual exclusivity as a means of opposing oil and gas development.

“The Wilderness Society has never found or seen an oil and gas lease they didn’t hate and want to have denied, so they will find any and all pretexts to invalidate any and all energy leases on federal lands,” he said.

Daue said neither The Wilderness Society or Conservation Colorado are opposed to responsible oil and gas leasing and development on public lands. He noted The Wilderness Society’s support for an updated BLM management plan for the Roan Plateau near Rifle. That compromise plan, which followed a lawsuit settlement, largely made the top of the plateau off limits to oil and gas leasing while managing how leases below the rim are developed.

 

ORIGINS OF EMPHASIS AREAS

Stevens said the solar emphasis areas were created as a result of some national-level federal planning for solar. She said local BLM offices were encouraged to look more closely at solar potential in their management areas.

She said the intent is to direct people interested in solar projects to look at designated emphasis areas for possible projects, but that doesn’t mean those areas are the only places the BLM would consider such projects.

She said her office hasn’t heard of any interest to date in either solar or wind projects.

Conservationists say the BLM is offering prime solar acreage for oil and gas leasing even though it has identified the acreage as having low potential for oil and gas development.

Stevens said what’s being offered is a mix of moderate- and low-potential acreage. The lower-potential acreage is being offered because some interest has been shown in it for oil and gas leasing.

The BLM typically offers oil and gas lease acreage based on expressions of interest it receives from the industry. It deferred offering some leases until completing its management plan, and now has begun moving forward with offering leases that contain stipulations identified in the plan to protect resources, Stevens said.

While the leases in the solar emphasis area are being offered under the Trump administration, the expressions of interest in them date back to well before President Trump took office, and Stevens said the process of preparing for a lease sale typically takes a year or so.

“We’ve been working on this lease sale for a while,” Stevens said.

Daue said while the expressions of interest may date back earlier, the BLM under the Trump administration has failed to even acknowledge the conflict that exists between solar and oil and gas when it comes to the six parcels in question, and “appears to be on a path for plowing ahead with offering them for sale.”

More broadly, he notes that the Trump administration has proposed cutting the BLM’s renewable energy funding nearly in half, while investing more in processing oil and gas permits.

Braden thinks the issue is important because of the importance of diversifying Mesa County’s economy, as is happening in the area of outdoor recreation.

“I … would submit that the renewable energy sector is another one where we have a lot of potential, but we need to do what we can to nurture that potential too, and make sure we’re not closing doors on any opportunities to develop that potential,” he said.


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