Who says President Obama isn’t pro-business? The trick is being a business he likes.
Several weeks ago in a remarkable but little-noticed policy directive, the Interior Department announced that it will allow construction permitting on 285,000 acres of public land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah for solar energy projects. Even more remarkable, Interior said that energy firms can petition Interior to build solar installations “on approximately 19 million acres”—a larger land mass than Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined.
Interior boasts that “this represents a major step forward in the permitting of utility-scale solar energy on public lands throughout the west.” This means opening up huge chunks of U.S. desert and wilderness to the installation and long-term placement of hundreds of thousands of solar panels. The dirty secret of solar and wind power is that they are extremely land intensive, especially compared to coal mining, oil and gas drilling or building a nuclear power plant.
That’s only part of the special treatment for solar companies. Interior says it plans to expedite solar-project approval and cut up-front costs for developers. The agency is also streamlining National Environmental Policy Act approval and facilitating the linking of solar electricity generation to transmission lines that will carry the electricity to substations. All of this is on top of the $9 billion in taxpayer handouts for solar and wind projects that were approved between 2009 and 2011.
In short, green energy is getting an EZ Pass through the Administration’s costly regulatory tolls. Since taking office in 2009, the Obama Administration has approved 17 major solar projects on public lands. All of this is facilitated through a program called the “roadmap for solar energy development.”
What’s surprising is that few if any nature groups are protesting this regulatory rush to approve renewable energy projects. Environmental groups have never hesitated to block a dam to save a snail darter, or oppose a forest-clearing to save an owl, but desert tortoises and bighorn sheep are apparently expendable as sacrifices to the gods of green energy. So much for protecting wildlife from big, bad profit-making industry.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Energy Research notices that the new solar policy is “in sharp contrast to the Obama Administration’s canceling lease sales for oil shale deposits in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah early in the President’s term and significantly downsizing development plans for those resources since then.”
This is roughly the same list of western states that got the green light for solar, but with different results. Oil shale—not to be confused with shale oil, which is extracted through hydraulic fracturing—is recovered by heating rock at high temperatures, which releases petroleum. The U.S. has the largest oil shale deposits in the world, totaling a little under one trillion recoverable barrels, or about 150 years worth of supply. But most of it is located on public lands and is still off limits.
Consider the 2005 Energy Policy Act that authorized oil shale leasing on public lands. In 2008 the Bush Administration issued rules on oil shale exploration, but in February 2009 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said those rules would be delayed. Only this year, says Mary Hutzler, former acting administrator of the Energy Information Agency, “did the Interior Department announce its plan for shale drilling, but the administration closed off 75% of the federal land containing oil shale resources that were to be offered for lease under the Bush rules.”
The solar industry’s environmental pass fits the Obama pattern of interpreting the law one way for friends and another for those in businesses it doesn’t like. Maybe if Mr. Obama treated every American industry the way it does solar and wind power (subsidies aside), the U.S. economy would be growing faster and the unemployment rate would fall below 8.3%. Just a thought.