No one understands the importance of striking this balance better than Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a mechanical engineer who worked in the oil industry. “I can still geek out pretty quick,” she said recently in California when touring a large-scale solar energy project on public land. On that same trip, the media reports that the secretary “scaled a 60-foot cliff” on public lands near Las Vegas.
Like most Westerners, Jewell clearly sees the value of our public lands as a source for energy development, economic growth and outdoor recreation. Western voters reject the idea that there must be a single-minded, “either/or” approach to public lands. According to a recent poll conducted by Hart Research Associates, a majority (55 percent) of voters in Western states say the government should put conservation on equal ground with drilling for oil and gas. Interestingly, 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of hunters and anglers chose the “equal ground with drilling for oil and gas” option.
Yet, in the first four years of the Obama administration, 240 acres of public lands were leased for energy development for every 100 acres of public land protected for wildlife habitat and recreation. Just 15 years ago, the ratio between energy development and conservation of public lands was more balanced.
As Obama has said: “It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and. We’ve got to look after our children; we have to look after our future; and we have to grow the economy and create jobs. We can do all of that as long as we don’t fear the future; instead we seize it.”
I’ve lived in Colorado for 11 years. My job often entails siting and developing wind and solar power projects. From my experience in utility-scale and distributed wind and solar power, I know energy development on public lands can be done in a responsible manner. Renewable energy is following a “smart from the start” approach to siting on public lands – ensuring public input and considerations about such things as wildlife habitat and recreation impacts are considered at the onset of the leasing process.
A recent white paper from the Center for American Progress suggests the Obama administration issue a secretarial order, which would explicitly direct agency staff to incorporate conservation into the energy development planning process by identifying and designating low-conflict, high-resource areas for oil and gas development. Similarly, identifying and protecting public lands that have high-value to the public because of critical water supplies, wildlife habitat, cultural treasures and/or recreation opportunities. Taking concrete, common-sense steps like these would protect the public lands that support our energy industries, and our quality of life.
Obama was quoted in saying: “I put forward in the past an all-of-the-above energy strategy, but our energy strategy must be about more than just producing more oil.”
Let’s be sure our national energy strategy includes conservation – for the good of our diverse economy, and our future.
Bergen is principal of his firm Altis Energy Services, and is a developer of wind and solar power projects throughout the U.S. with a regional focus on the Rocky Mountains and Desert Southwest.