Bipartisan lawmakers propose sharing revenues with states, counties
The bills by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also would dedicate revenues to help agencies streamline the permitting of renewable energy on federal lands.
“With some of the best renewable energy development sites located on public lands, it’s vital to expand this industry while protecting the natural resources that make the West famous,” Tester said this morning in a statement. “Our bill is a common-sense way to create jobs and provide renewable energy the same opportunities as oil and gas while increasing our energy security.”
The proposal drew the support of conservationists, sportsmen and county officials who warned that the unchecked expansion of renewable energy on public lands could degrade habitats and strain counties’ ability to fund basic services like road maintenance, public safety and law enforcement.
The measure has also been endorsed by taxpayer advocates who said a competitive leasing program similar to the way the Interior Department conveys drilling rights is needed to ensure taxpayers get fair return for use of their lands. But renewable industry groups have questioned whether the new leasing system proposed by the bills is necessary, saying it may add a layer of bureaucracy.
Its introduction comes as the Bureau of Land Management has approved 34 wind, solar and geothermal projects on public lands since 2009 and last week identified 23 additional projects it intends to move through federal permitting this year and next (Greenwire, Feb. 6).
Like last Congress, the bill carries strong bipartisan support in both chambers. Gosar’s H.R. 596 has 15 co-sponsors, including Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). Tester’s bill is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and Dean Heller of Nevada and Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
“Arizona can be a model for energy-driven economic recovery in this country, but bureaucratic red tape has gotten in the way,” Gosar said Friday in a statement. “This bill is a part of a comprehensive energy policy that gets the government out of the way, grows our energy sector and spurs job creation.”
Gosar’s bill would require the establishment of leasing areas for wind and solar, require the establishment of a royalty that is both fair to taxpayers and encourages development, and prescribe how such revenues would be disbursed.
One-fourth of bonus bids and royalties would be sent each to the states and counties where the energy is produced. One-fourth would be sent to a renewable energy conservation fund to protect and restore fish and wildlife habitat and ensure recreational access. An additional 15 percent of revenues would be used to help the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service accelerate the permitting of wind and solar projects already in the development pipeline.
Under current law, all renewable energy revenues are sent to the U.S. Treasury.
Major wind and solar energy trade groups have shown a tepid response to the bills.
Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a year ago said it may be too soon to implement a leasing program for solar development. The American Wind Energy Association said that the current process by which companies apply for a right of way to develop wind farms on public lands works “reasonably well” and that a leasing program could add time, cost and complexity to the process.
“But, if Congress wants to move in this direction, we believe starting with a pilot program makes sense as a first step to verify whether such a change benefits taxpayers, the agency and the industry,” said Tom Vinson, senior director of federal and regulatory affairs for AWEA.
The Obama administration has not taken a position on the bills, which did not receive a congressional hearing in either chamber last Congress.
The bills’ reintroduction drew praise this week from the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, the Idaho Wildlife Federation and renewable energy construction provider Exergy Integrated Systems. The effort last Congress was endorsed by the Western Governors’ Association, the National Association of Counties and Taxpayers for Common Sense.
“By making vital investments in local communities, future permitting and natural resource conservation, the legislation makes a bold commitment to the regions that are seeing the added increase in development,” said Chase Huntley, a clean energy specialist with the Wilderness Society.
BLM has already indicated it plans to implement a leasing program for renewable energy, though a timeline is unclear.
The agency in late 2011 said it plans to establish a rule that would allow wind and solar companies to bid for leasing rights on public lands, a move designed to increase competition and boost revenues to taxpayers (Greenwire, Jan. 3, 2012).
It is unclear whether Gosar’s and Tester’s bills could be incorporated into a larger revenue-sharing effort being led by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) that would share up to 37.5 percent of revenues from offshore energy development with adjacent states to help fund infrastructure and public services and invest in clean energy and habitat conservation.
That bill, which has yet to be introduced, would also share half the revenues from onshore renewable energy development with the states in which the projects are located, as is already the case for onshore oil and gas drilling, said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon.