WASHINGTON – A bill aiming to increase renewable energy production on public lands is gaining broad support as it makes its way through the U.S. House.
A bipartisan group of 24 lawmakers – including Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez – introduced the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act on July 17. It has since picked up nine more co-sponsorships and had a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee.
The proposed law would set up a revenue-sharing mechanism to split certain permitting and leasing fees from wind and solar energy developments on public lands between stakeholders. The state and county where the project takes place would each get 25% of the royalties, 25% would go to a new fund to conserve public lands for wildlife and recreation, 15% would be used to help process renewable energy permits and 10% would contribute to paying off the federal budget deficit.
The bill would also establish an office to coordinate and speed up the sluggish permitting process for renewable energy projects. Applications for new geothermal, wind and solar energy developments can take more than a decade to gain approval, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee said.
“One of the benefits we see in this legislation is to be able to replicate a little bit of what we see off of fossil fuel development, where royalties are paid back to the communities,” Tipton said in an interview.
Tipton praised the revenue-sharing system because he said it would incentivize state and county governments to welcome renewable energy developments on public lands. Governments could then invest their shares in public education and infrastructure projects, for instance, Tipton said.
Chris Wood, president of cold-water fisheries conservation group Trout Unlimited, testified in favor of the bill in the House. Unlike the 1872 mining law, which did not dedicate funds to environmental protection, this bill takes conservation and outdoor recreation into account, Wood said.
“Hunters and anglers really depend on (public) lands. I think what sportsmen like about this bill is the idea that it recognizes that we need to develop public lands in a responsible way with renewable energy,” Wood said. “But we also need to provide for the restoration and conservation needs of fish and wildlife and water.”
The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act of 2019 is the latest version of the bill, which was first introduced in 2011 by Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana. Tipton and Colorado senators at the time, Democrats Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, co-sponsored that incarnation of the bill.
Tracy Stone-Manning was on Tester’s staff in 2011 and is now the associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation. In a phone interview, Stone-Manning said it’s high time Congress pass this common-sense legislation, and she gave one suggestion to improve it.
“What this bill doesn’t consider – it’s a small thing, but an important thing – we also have a bunch of federally owned public buildings all over this country that we could be putting solar panels on top of,” Stone-Manning said.
With 17 Republican co-sponsors and 16 Democratic ones, there is no visible opposition to the bill in Congress. When Tester first proposed it eight years ago, it also garnered support from both parties.
“I have no idea why it hasn’t moved along. It’s bipartisan,” Stone-Manning said. “It is perhaps a reflection of priorities in Congress. It just needs to get more visibility and higher priority.”
James Marshall is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.