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Clearing the way for renewables

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Nathan Rice | Apr 28, 2011 06:00 AM

On public lands, mining claims are staked for more than just the riches hidden underground. Some are made simply to wrest cash from competing users -- namely possibly renewable energy developers, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Speculators can could grab up mining claims in areas considered for wind and solar energy development other uses -- land which may or may not actually hold mineral wealth -- and then force developers to pay for them before windmills or solar panels can be built. (Update: BLM is concerned that existing mining claims could be speculative in areas now being considered for renewables. This has not yet been documented in these areas, but mining claims staked in two solar project application areas are being reviewed.)

CA windmillsWith a new rule made effective on Monday, BLM seeks to end such land disputes and clear the path for renewable energy development. The rule will exempt land considered for renewable development from competing mining claims, many of which cannot be inspected to ensure that an actual "discovery" has been made. The move will simplify an already complex application process and aid the ongoing federal effort to generate 10,000 megawatts of non-hydropower renewable energy on public land by 2015.

That effort has been hampered by the notorious 1872 Mining Law -- the law behind the speculative mining claims. The outdated-but-still-kicking law declares that mining claims take priority over other land uses, allowing claims to be staked even after a renewable energy developer has applied for a BLM right-of-way. This can could derail a development project or increase costs, adding uncertainty that could repel renewable energy investors.

As Chase Huntley, clean energy policy adviser for the Wilderness Society, told Greenwire, "This order will help the [Interior Department] shield renewable energy applicants from predatory application from mineral extraction companies. This is a responsible move."

Since 2006, two renewable energy applications have been hindered by late mining claims on BLM land. In the past two years, 437 new mining claims were filed in wind energy application areas in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, while 216 new mining claims were located in solar energy application areas. While some of these claims may be valid, BLM says, others are likely speculative.

The mining camp is unsure how the rule will affect the industry, but remains concerned. "(The rule) may have a negligible effect on mining," says Luke Popovich, vice president of external communications for the National Mining Association. "It will depend upon how BLM manages this on a site-by-site basis," he said, stressing the need for domestically mined minerals to build components for windmills and solar panels.

The new rule will also speed up BLM's effort to fill 24 proposed solar energy zones slated for fast-tracked development. Last year, the agency permitted 3,700 megawatts of renewables.

This interim rule will be in effect for two years while a proposed permanent rule change is in the works. Both rules are open for public comment through July 27.

Nathan Rice is an intern at High Country News.

Photo of windmills near Palm Springs, California courtesy Flickr user fishfoot.

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