BLM shields renewable projects from mining speculation

  • Mining claims are quick to stake and cheap, at just $100.

    Tom Check, cc via Flickr

"Some snotty bugger went in and staked a bunch of mining claims just to make a hurdle," says Dave Shaddrick, president of the Nevada Mineral Exploration Coalition. Four claims, actually, filed last April on the site of the contentious 400-megawatt Silver State solar power plant near Las Vegas, Nev. Some believe that locals, angry that Nevada desert will be bulldozed to produce electricity for California, filed them to derail the project. It's relatively easy and only costs $100 -- and, thanks to the 1872 Mining Law, until a right of way has been granted, each 20-acre claim comes with rights that supersede surface land uses.

Now a Bureau of Land Management geologist must check the claims for salable minerals, which can take a year or more, says Greg Helseth, renewable energy project manager at the agency's Las Vegas field office. If the agency can't find any, it will nullify the claims. But if they're valid, that's it: First Solar, the company planning the project, will have to agree to claimants' demands or work around their claims. While wind towers or transmission lines might be able to skirt mining claims, doing so can be impossible for a large-scale solar project that needs 3,000 contiguous acres. "For $100," grumbles Helseth, "you can mess up a $1.5 million EIS" -- the environmental review required for building on public land.

During the last two years, 216 mining claims have been staked on BLM lands proposed for solar projects, plus another 437 on areas under consideration for wind farms. "Our perception is there are parties that wanted to create conflict" for projects, which are easily targeted once they appear in the Federal Register, says Ray Brady, the BLM's energy policy team manager. Although some claims are valid, others are likely speculative and meant to "compel some kind of payment," according to the BLM.

Mining claims, speculative or real, can also inhibit financing, as has happened with Crescent Dunes, another Nevada solar project, where five lithium claims were staked last year. BLM field office manager Tom Seley believes the companies involved will find a way to fit the mining operation between the concentrated solar reflectors, but settling the details could take time. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy won't finalize loan guarantees until the situation is resolved.

To address these holdups, the BLM announced April 26 that it will put potential renewable energy development areas off-limits to mining claims for up to two years -- just enough time to complete an environmental review and grant a right of way. Once that's achieved, the area would again be open to mining, but claimants would have to pay the right-of-way holders to move out of the way. The millions it would cost to move a solar or wind facility would keep most miners from developing a claim unless there's "tons and tons of gold" to make it worthwhile, says Helseth. Meanwhile, officials hope that temporary withdrawal while the agency processes renewable energy applications will help further the 2005 Energy Policy Act's goal of generating 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015.

Still, it won't affect the hundreds of mining claims already staked in the way of proposed projects. And other, more significant delays and hurdles remain. For example, the portion of the Silver State project where the mining claims are located had their right of way delayed for other reasons, including threats to desert tortoises and lack of a power purchase agreement. Meanwhile, construction could start any day now on the conflict-free 50-megawatt phase of the project, which will deliver electricity to Nevada. When it goes online next spring, it may be the first commercial solar plant on federal land. "That," says Helseth, "is exciting."

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