The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is Underway
On September 14, 2016, in a long-anticipated move certain to interest renewable energy project developers, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the Proposed Land Use Plan Amendment and Final Environmental Impact Statement for Phase I of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which is specifically focused on federal lands.
The DRECP implements a holistic framework to facilitate streamlined permitting of renewal energy projects and facilities in the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran Desert regions of southern California. Importantly, Phase I of the DRECP establishes 388,000 acres of federal land – referred to as Development Focus Areas – in the identified desert regions as having substantial renewable energy potential (and have access to transmission of such energy).
Renewable energy projects and facilities built on these will face a streamlined permitting process, though there are some concerns over the DRECP process and whether the live implementation adequately addresses the needs of renewable energy project developers.
DRECP Streamlining of the Permitting Process
The DRECP does not substitute for the existing project permitting process, but instead serves as a facilitator for such permitting through the addition of a preliminary DRECP Coordination Group review process.
First, an applicant submits their project proposal to the DRECP Coordination Group for preliminary review to ensure that the project satisfies specific DRECP requirements pertaining to avoidance, minimization, and mitigation. Then, after the project has been approved by the DRECP Coordination Group, review of the application by the permitting agencies will be expedited if the agency is a DRECP participant. Participating agencies include the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Energy Commission, and the California State Lands Commission.
Continued Renewable Energy Project Concerns
The implementation of DRECP-specific preliminary review as a pre-requisite for expedited review by the lead agency is a matter of some concern for renewable energy project developers. Though the overall permitting process may be expedited, many developers have expressed concern that DRECP-specific requirements may unfairly drive up the costs of development and unnecessarily restrict the ambitions of large-scale renewable energy projects on key public land.
DRECP phase rollout has been somewhat controversial as well, with many renewable energy project developers frustrated by a perceived environmentalist bias and a de-prioritization of project development goals. Phase 1 established only 388,000 acres as Development Focus Areas for renewable energy project development, out of a total 10.8 million acres – the vast majority of which was earmarked for conservation and recreational purposes. The BLM is considering establishing an additional 400,000 acres as Development Focus Areas.
With the DRECP now underway and with numerous stakeholders – both private and public, and at the federal, state, and local level – actively engaged, the multi-phase approach should allow for an approach that can respond rapidly to stakeholder needs and concerns moving forward.
The DRECP rollout has been specifically designed to allow a lean response to stakeholder needs as appropriate.
Though only 388,000 acres were set aside as Development Focus Areas for the initial Phase I rollout, large portions of the 3.6 million acres of recreational land are available for re-designation if the need arises.
Concerns that the costs of project development will rise as a result of DRECP-specific requirements have been addressed to some extent. The BLM has taken a wait-and-see approach – if the costs realized by project developers are excessive and prohibitive, additional financial incentives may be introduced to defray these costs.
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