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Lawmakers tout historically bipartisan bill to spur renewable energy build-out

U.S. House Democratic lawmakers called for Republican support on a recently reintroduced bill seeking to spur renewable energy development on federal lands after prior proposals garnered bipartisan support.

The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act of 2021 would direct the U.S. departments of the Interior and Energy to set priority areas for solar, wind and geothermal energy projects. Such areas would give those energy projects "highest priority for incentivizing deployment thereon" and the chance to participate in the development of regional mitigation plans, according to the bill.

The proposal builds upon legislation passed in 2020, U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., who is co-sponsoring the bill, said during a May 24 hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. The lawmaker noted that the bill was introduced with bipartisan support in the previous Congress and expects it will receive bipartisan support.

"Last year's progress was only a first step," Levin said during the hearing. "The Public Land Renewable Energy Act of 2021 includes a number of updates and improvements to reflect continued feedback we've received."

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., introduced the same bill in 2019, which was co-sponsored by 70 other lawmakers, according to a release from his office. While lawmakers passed provisions from a similar bill in 2020, the 2021 proposal would "finish that work," Gosar said.

If passed, the bill would give Interior up to three years to establish priority areas for wind and solar development and up to five years for geothermal facilities.

The federal agency would have to "review the adequacy of land allocations" used to develop more renewable energy sources at least once a decade, giving officials a chance to modify priority areas as needed. However, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an Obama-era land management plan affecting renewable energy generation in California, would be exempt from Interior's review and modifications until 2030.

Beginning in 2022, the proposal would require the federal government to return 25% of revenues collected from bonus bids, rentals, leases and fees to counties affected by projects' development, according to the bill. Another 25% would help Interior run the programs and process renewable energy permits on federal lands.

The bill would require federal agencies to deposit 25% of revenue into a newly created Renewable Energy Resource Conservation Fund, which will be used to restore and protect affected wildlife habitat and the environment affected by such projects.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has permitted renewable energy projects with more than 12,400 MW of total capacity on federal lands, said Nada Culver, deputy director of policy and programs who is acting as director of the BLM. Culver expects the agency to permit up to 3,000 MW of additional capacity this fiscal year, noting that the BLM has identified about 19 million acres of land with solar energy potential and another 20 million acres with wind energy potential.

The bill would help to promote and expedite solar, wind and geothermal development, aligning well with the Biden administration's clean energy and climate targets, the official said. It also would help the BLM balance various land uses on federal lands by establishing the best places for renewable energy sources with the least potential conflict.

While developers can seek to construct projects outside of priority areas, such facilities would require additional environmental reviews that projects in priority areas do not require.

"The BLM recognizes the importance of identifying low-conflict, priority areas and appreciates the attention to financial certainty for grant holders provided by the bill," Culver said during the hearing.