On Jan. 16, outgoing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne authorized the Bureau of Land Management to create renewable energy offices in Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada. The offices are meant to speed permitting for wind, solar, biomass and geothermal projects, as well as transmission lines. The feds are acting on a 2005 directive to develop 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015.
That sounds noble, but with a huge number of projects in queue – there were 125 solar applications on almost 1 million acres of public land as of June 2008, for example – the effort could ultimately leave an environmental footprint as deep in some ways as that of the West’s last energy rush. After 9/11, the Bush administration made expediting fossil fuel production from public lands one of its highest priorities. In Western areas rich in natural gas, that meant churning out drilling permits, often at the expense of other resources. Roads, wellpads and drill rigs fragmented habitat and marred views; diesel fumes and volatile organic compounds fogged the air, punching ozone to dangerous levels in some places.
Any industrial-scale energy development on public land should proceed with caution. The last thing we need is for our efforts to solve the biggest environmental problem -- global warming -- to set off cascades of other environmental problems.