Digging Deeper Into Federal Lands' Renewable Promise

In Brief

Finding the fuel of the future in the terrain where oil and gas exploration once damaged wildlife poses a slew of challenges- and opportunities. 

But a new study from CBEY and the Wilderness Society spells out how a mix of management skill, careful consultation, and cross-sector thinking can make public lands abundant with energy and ecology. 

Here, one of the report's authors sets out what the team learned and what she hopes researchers and entrepreneurs will keep learning as America finds ways out of the Covid crisis. 

How can managers produce fuel responsibly and remuneratively in the interior?

To herald "Key Economic Benefits of Renewable Energy on Public Lands," a report years in the making, CEFF invited Nikki Springer to expand on the themes and challenges in the work she's co-written.  In this internal discussion, Nikki highlights the mix of skills CBEY aims to cultivate and shows how those skills can foster employment, fossil-free resources, and environmental flourishing in America's most biologically tricky places. 

CEFF:  How do you measure success in both conservation and productivity? Does it take a special kind of manager to "get" both these metrics? 

Springer:  Developing mitigation strategies at a regional level means that you're accounting for the cumulative impacts of multiple projects within a region that are all operating within, and impacting, a given ecosystem. You're able to assess threats at a landscape scale and pool resources. That was one of the biggest benefits to industrial developers - putting the task of developing mitigation strategies in the hands of the federal government allows perspective beyond individual projects. The experts contributing to these environmental assessments are scientists, biologists, hydrologists and cultural experts from federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). From industry's perspective, they like the federal government’s role in this because it removes that burden from their staff and allows them to focus on project development and ensures there are environmental experts involved at the local or regional level. 

CEFF:  Is there some cultural component to work on public lands that seems speedier or more responsive than the typical (or stereotypical) utility? What's common across the calculations and valuations? How can and can't you extrapolate from these data to future possibilities?

Springer:  That is such a huge question that's being debated – any development project on federal lands triggers a whole host of regulations that don’t come into play on private land. The fundamental question is how to assess impact in a thoughtful way and develop mitigation strategies that address the most critical ecosystem threats. Even the greenest forms of utility-scale energy infrastructure have some impact. Therein lies a paradox: if we want renewable energy and need to do it on landscape scale, it’s going to have an impact. Thoughtful development needs to balance the costs, benefits, and impacts in ways that work together to satisfy numerous criteria – not just environmental, but also legal, financial, cultural, and practical. It’s helpful to have multi-disciplinary professionals engaged in the process, as they can consider the project from multiple perspectives. 

CEFF:  How does the COVID crisis affect likely progress in activity? 

Springer:  I'm not sure that's a huge impact to this topic because these projects can often take a very long time to move through the development pipeline and to ultimately become operational. I’ve followed projects that are more than 10 years in the making. Now that this research has quantified the economic contributions to date and developed a methodology for quantifying other benefits, it sets the stage for understanding what can happen next. Technology change is huge when you talk about projects that have been in the pipeline for so long. When done properly, thoughtfully, and from a holistic perspective, our public lands offer a valuable space for utility-scale renewable energy particularly. However, our knowledge of environmental impacts and ecosystem management has greatly improved since many of our federal environmental regulations were developed, and this revised “Smart” approach incorporates that learning into 21st-century energy development of public lands.

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