The Obama administration is feverishly pushing the U.S. to embrace wind and solar energy but isn’t doing nearly enough to ensure the eventual cleanup of the sites it has leased for renewable power projects, a government watchdog said this week.
Lawmakers on Wednesday demanded accountability from the Bureau of Land Management following an investigation that found the government routinely fails to secure proper bonding from wind and solar project developers, potentially leaving taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars.
The Government Accountability Office report — which gives more fuel to critics who say President Obama will push “green” power at all costs — also said that the administration has kept shoddy records, may have shredded bond documents and blatantly treats renewable power differently than it treats fossil fuel projects.
Energy developers are required to post bonds in the event they declare bankruptcy or are otherwise unable to fund the cleanup of federal land after the projects end. Without such bonds, taxpayers would be responsible to fund reclamation.
The administration has approved at least 43 solar and wind projects on federal land since 2009, the GAO said, and has secured about $100 million in reclamation bonds to pay for cleanup.
But nearly one-third of those bonds are woefully underfunded, leaving taxpayers potentially responsible for as much as $15 million in reclamation costs, the GAO reported.
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“BLM has limited assurance that bonds for wind and solar rights-of-way will cover reclamation costs, leaving the federal government potentially at financial risk if developers do not complete reclamation,” the GAO report said. “BLM did not clearly document how it made its bond decisions, contrary to government standards that call for documentation of significant events BLM also does not consistently adhere to its policies calling for periodic review of wind and solar bond amounts to verify their adequacy.”
The report comes as Mr. Obama ramps up his climate change agenda, which centers on phasing out fossil fuels such as coal and increasing reliance on wind, solar and other renewable fuels. The Environmental Protection Agency later this summer will release new regulations limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and the administration is urging states to make up for lost coal power by investing more heavily in clean energy.
The GAO investigation also comes against the backdrop of an administration that already has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money via failed investments into Solyndra and other clean-energy projects.
Opponents of Mr. Obama’s climate agenda say the GAO report proves the administration has moved far beyond simply advocating clean energy and now is actively skirting the rules to help the wind and solar industries.
“We just give money away trying to get people into those businesses We’ve got to start holding people accountable that don’t follow the rules,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources’ subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which held a hearing on the issue Wednesday morning.
Bureau of Land Management officials say they already have started making improvements to record-keeping, bond review and other aspects of the federal leasing program.
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“We take very seriously our responsibility to sustain the health and diversity of those lands, to ensure lands are restored,” Steven Ellis, BLM deputy director for operations, told the House subcommittee Wednesday.
The Bureau of Land Management is under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department.
The GAO report also exposed what critics believe are deep biases within the Bureau of Land Management and across the administration. GAO officials said the government is less stringent with its records for renewable fuels than it is for coal and other fossil fuels.
“The [Bureau of Land Management] does not have a timeliness standard for wind and solar data entry, contrary to the standard for its mining program,” said Anne-Marie Fennell, director of the GAO’s natural resources and environment team.
Democrats and GAO officials point out that, up to this point, no wind or solar developer has abandoned federally owned land, declared bankruptcy or otherwise forced taxpayers to pick up the tab for reclamation. They also argue that Republicans and other critics merely are singling out renewable energy for political purposes and should instead focus on overhauling the broader federal policy on land leasing.
“I think there are bigger fish to fry here,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democrat.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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