Senators offer bipartisan leasing, revenue-sharing bill


by Phil Taylor

A bipartisan pair of Western senators yesterday introduced a bill that would establish a leasing program for solar and wind power on federal lands and ensure a cut of the revenue is sent to local governments and conservation interests.

The bill from Sens. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is modeled on a proposal Tester floated last Congress (Land Letter, July 15, 2010) but contains some changes in response to stakeholder concerns.

The bill would create a pilot leasing project for renewable energy similar to the way oil and gas is managed on public lands.

It comes as the Bureau of Land Management is preparing a rulemaking to establish a competitive bidding process for the rights to develop some of the most sun-drenched areas in six Southwestern states (E&ENews PM, Oct. 27).

Tester and Risch's bill, which drew praise from conservationists, sportsmen and counties, would also set up a royalty to be distributed to state and county governments, conservation projects, and the processing of wind and solar permits.

"With some of the best renewable energy development sites located on public lands, it is vital to expand this industry while protecting the natural resources that make our region famous," Tester said in a statement. "Our bill is a common-sense way to create jobs and give renewable energy the same opportunities as oil and gas."

The sponsors cited long permitting times for developers seeking to build on public lands. Without a leasing process, developers have no rights to the lands until all environmental reviews are completed, a process that can take years.

While they wait, some BLM lands have been claimed by mining firms, a trend the agency has sought to halt by temporarily shielding the lands from mineral claims.

The measure is backed by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the National Association of Counties, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited.

"This is a big step forward toward creating a renewable energy policy which respects both the rights of developers and those who use and value our public lands," said Keith Curley, TU's director of government affairs, in a statement.

According to Curley, states and counties would each receive 25 percent of revenues, 15 percent would go to an Interior Department renewable energy permit processing fund, and the rest would fund habitat mitigation projects.

The bill's Renewable Energy Resource Conservation Fund would help protect and restore fish and game habitat and secure recreational access, he said.