- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2012

Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar on Monday cheered on the opening of the first large-scale solar power project on federal property, just three days after his department rolled out new regulations on oil and gas companies doing business on those very same lands.

The Enbridge Silver State North solar project in Clark County, Nevada, one of at least 28 renewable-energy projects approved by the Obama administration for construction on government land, will produce enough electricity to power about 9,000 homes, the Interior Department said. Approved by federal officials two years ago, the plant is also expected to help Nevada move toward its goal of producing 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

“This is a landmark day for solar energy and for the nation,” said Mr. Salazar, speaking at Monday’s “switch-flipping” ceremony.

“Silver State North was the first solar project we approved on public lands and, 18 months later, the first of our priority projects to provide clean energy to the power grid,” he added, calling the project “a model of industry and government working together to strengthen local economies.”

Another 16 solar power facilities, five wind farms and eight geothermal power plants have also gotten the green light to break ground on federal lands. The administration is also pointing out that, prior to its arrival in 2009, the federal government had never authorized solar power operations on government land.

But as the administration opens up federal property for so-called “green companies,” fossil-fuel-based industries fear they being pushed from those lands by a growing wave of new rules and regulations, coming primarily from Mr. Salazar’s Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

On Friday, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management released new guidelines for oil and natural gas companies that use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract fuel from public grounds. For the first time, drilling companies will need approval from the bureau before beginning operations. They’ll also be required to disclose all chemicals used during the process.

The regulations, industry leaders say, pile unneeded federal red tape on top of what’s already in place at the state level.

“Western energy producers already face excessive bureaucratic hurdles when developing American energy on public lands,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, which represents drillers doing business in the western U.S.

“Since nearly every well drilled in the West requires the use of fracking, these unnecessary new rules will only discourage the production of American energy,” she said.

The Bureau of Land Management estimates its new rules would actually save money by reducing the future risk of environmental incidents, such as water contamination. The Western Energy Alliance, however, argues that the rules could cost the industry as much as $175 million each year.

The aggrieved industries have some allies on Capitol Hill. Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, and others have accused the White House of launching a full-fledged “war on fossil fuels” to appease environmental activists.

In recent months, new EPA pollution standards have put an effective ban on new coal-fired power plants. The EPA has also put forth air quality standards for all oil and gas companies that employ fracking.

Later this year, the agency will release a draft report on fracking and its effect on water quality. That study is expected to call for additional restrictions and could increase federal control over drilling companies.

While the administration continues to tout its “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, government figures show that oil and gas production on federal lands has dropped dramatically over the past three years. Since 2009, total fossil fuel production on government land has dipped by 7 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Its figures show those fuels produce the vast majority of American energy, while wind, solar and geothermal sources were responsible for just 1.5 percent of U.S. energy consumption last year.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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