An efficient process reduces costs to developers and the BLM, BLM staff time, and other resource inputs while allowing for decisions to be made in a timely manner.
1. BLM Familiarity with the ROW Process
The BLM issues right-of-way grants for roads, transmission lines, communication towers, wind turbines, and similar developments, so BLM staff is well versed in the right-of-way process. BLM staff feel this is a strength since applying the process to solar facilities presents some challenges, discussed below, but the process itself does not impose a learning curve on the BLM. This adds to the efficiency of the process.
2. Lack of BLM Authority to Reject Applications
The BLM does not have the authority to reject “bad” applications before the NEPA process begins. Applications that are clearly speculative, include fatal flaws based on staff experience, or are located in areas with many existing land use conflicts must be reviewed even when BLM staff know will never get through the process for approval. Instead of rejecting applications, BLM staff may inform the applicant of likely conflicts with their application but cannot require the applicant to move or change their application. BLM staff at the state, district, and field offices and an environmental group mentioned this weakness.
For example, the Ridgecrest Field Office rejected several right-of-way applications for solar facilities because the proposed siting was in a designated Mojave Ground Squirrel Conservation Area. Based on that designation, a BLM staff member noted, “Within the Mojave Ground Squirrel Conservation Area, between 2006 and the year 2036, there can only be new surface disturbance totaling 10,387 acres scattered across the entirety of the Conservation Area. If you do the math, it comes up to about 300 surface acres a year that we can absorb in new disturbances within the area. When we had applications coming in for 6,000 acres, we were looking at one permitee consuming 60 percent of the available acres for the 30 year life of the plan. As you can imagine, that created quite some concern for us in management. We determined that in the conservation area that was not compatible, so we rejected the application.”1 The Interior Board of Land Appeals later overturned the rejection and declared that the BLM must treat each application seriously and equally as they do not have the authority to be pre- decisional, that is making a decision before a full analysis has been completed.2
Since BLM cannot simply reject applications they see as unfeasible, they are forced to use time and resources processing those applications, which reduces efficiency. This detracts from their ability to process applications that are better developed and potentially face fewer conflicts, as well as their ability to perform the numerous other duties of their office beyond solar facility siting.
3. No Method for Prioritizing Application Processing
Both a BLM field office staff member and a solar developer noted that field offices do not have a standard method or protocol for prioritizing application processing. With so many right-of-way applications filed at the same time within each field office, BLM staff must attempt to effectively process all applications with limited staff while completing the numerous other duties of the office, which reduces efficiency. As a BLM staff member stated, “We started off on a project by project basis and then got slammed. We’re working under pretty strict deadlines: there are targets to be made here in California, and there are national targets. There are commitments made by the [Obama] administration. How do we do that with a large flood [of applications]? How do we do it in a fair process for everyone?”3 The October 2009 MOU between the State of California and the DOI places a higher priority on applications within SESAs and renewable energy zones identified in the DRECP and in RETI and areas that do not require new transmission. Additionally, 10 projects are self-identified as “Fast Track” projects in an attempt to take advantage of ARRA Funding. These projects are also prioritized as the funding deadline is December 2010. Even with these priorities the BLM has not established a method for prioritizing applications within these groups. Field office staff continue to face pressure from solar developers to process their application quickly and efficiently, while some environmental stakeholders pressure them to slow down in order to ensure all possible impacts are completely analyzed. Thus, the lack of a prioritization method means the BLM is subject to political and stakeholder pressures. An established method would insulate the agency from these pressures.
4. CEC & BLM Collaboration
Solar projects located on BLM land must go through both the BLM and the CEC permitting process. To reduce processing time, the two agencies entered into an MOU to combine the two processes. However, BLM and CEC have never collaborated on large projects before. Employees of both agencies are struggling to work out the differences in the two processes and the timelines, but the joint process is not yet clear or efficient.
As one BLM employee stated regarding energy efficiency, “That’s not our area. I work for a land management company. That’s why we have such a tight partnership with CEC on this. I mean when I say a tight partnership, a planner in my office spends an hour or two every day on conference calls with CEC, because between them and CPUC their expertise and their knowledge of the electrical side of the equation, they’re a critical part of this. I manage the land; they manage pretty much the power needs of the citizens of the state. It’s getting those two integrated in a very good process. It has been painful. They don’t know how to talk BLM; we don’t know how to talk power company. And I think if you want to get into that, you start looking, there’s just a lot that’s unknown. The economics of the industry are just not out, they’re not public. Nobody knows those numbers. So even if we were asked to make a judgment, we can’t do it. We don’t have the factual information to do that.”4
5. Inconsistency and Lack of Thoroughness of BLM Guidance
Interviews with BLM staff indicate the developers have been submitting ROW SF-299 applications and associated PODs with varying levels and relevancies of information. One BLM staffer mentioned, “Some of them will give us everything we never wanted to know on how their boilers are going to be designed and they skip the basics on the biological community and what their plan is for vegetation recovery. And those are the types of things we’re interested in as surface manager. What’s going to happen to the vegetation? What going to happen to the soils?”5
Commenting on this issue, another BLM staffer noted, “The right-of-way application is not bad, it’s just that the applicants all respond to it different. I think it’s because while the right-of-way application isn’t bad, it’s not explained very well. There’s the chance that maybe folks look at the website and pull off the SF-299 and have never met with the field office. They don’t understand how to describe all of the things that fit into an SF-299. We don’t get good legal descriptions. It would be good actually if the right-of-way said ‘check the master title plot or make sure you check any other applications in this area before you submit for this specific section’, but it doesn’t say that.”6
While the SF-299 is a standard form and the BLM provides some guidance for what should and should not be included in a POD, the BLM has not produced clear and detailed guidance to developers to ensure these submissions are adequate when they are first submitted. When an inadequate SF-299 and/or POD is received, BLM staff must use more time and resources to inform the applicant of the gaps in their application and what types of information is needed for the BLM to move forward processing it. Another BLM staff member noted that BLM was in the process of developing a checklist for developers, but that it was not complete as of the time of the interview.
6. Large Number of Applications to Process
Solar development has been referred to as a land rush in the California desert, as there have been a multitude of applications submitted in the past 4 years. With the creation of policy and financial incentives for solar projects there has been a flood of applications into the region. The BLM field offices are faced with new projects every week and this has led to staffing and time management issues. The number of applications also makes it difficult to get individual projects through the process in a timely and efficient manner as new applications constantly need to be reviewed.
7. Insufficient BLM Staffing
BLM staff, solar developers, and environmental organizations all noted the limitations of BLM offices in efficiently processing the right-of-way applications received simply because many BLM offices are short-staffed. Some field offices hired contractors to come in and assist with analysis and the BLM responded nationally by creating Renewable Energy Coordination Offices to focus solely on processing renewable energy applications, alleviating field office staff that spend a significant amount of their time working on solar facility applications. One BLM Field Office Manager said, “[working on solar applications takes] probably about 25 percent of my time. It’s pretty significant.”7 Given the number of applications, the man-hours required to process just one application, and the fact that staff resources continue to be limited, this problem remains significant.
8. Inter-Agency Coordination
As noted above, there are multiple processes among different agencies that solar developers must go through to receive all of the permits and grants to construct and operate a solar facility on public lands in California. In an attempt to ease the burden on developers, the agencies are focused on integrating the processes. The BLM participates in multiple working groups to achieve this goal. Aside from integrating the processes there are also many groups that are attempting to plan where solar development and transmission should go, including the Western Governor’s Association’s Western Renewable Energy Zones (WREZ), California’s Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) and RETI, the Renewable Energy Policy Group (REPG) and the DRECP group. Both the REPG and the DRECP are collaborative groups of federal and State of California agencies. The BLM participates in all of these groups in order to provide and gather feedback on the status and future of solar development in the desert. Inter-agency coordination requires a significant dedication of time spent in meetings with other agencies discussing individual projects and on coordinating public meetings and environmental reviews, which can reduce efficiency in processing individual applications.
1 U.S. Bureau of Land Management Staff Member 11, Personal Communication, October 29, 2009.
2 U.S. Bureau of Land Management Staff Member 11, Personal Communication, October 29, 2009.
3 U.S. Bureau of Land Management Staff Member 4, Personal Communication, July 28, 2009.
4 U.S. Bureau of Land Management Staff Member 4, Personal Communication, July 28, 2009.
5 U.S. Bureau of Land Management Staff Member 4, Personal Communication, July 28, 2009.
6 U.S. Bureau of Land Management Staff Member 1, Personal Communication, July 27, 2009.
7 U.S. Bureau of Land Management Staff Member 5, Personal Communication, July 28, 2009.