President Joe Biden has pledged to reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” in the U.S. electricity sector by 2035. This fantastical plan is, we are told, advancing along two tracks simultaneously. On one side is a systematic reduction of fossil fuel usage; on the other, a push to deploy renewable energy substitutes. Of course, the plan is predicated on the second track advancing at least as fast as the first. But it isn’t—and Biden’s own policies are partly to blame.

Case in point: The administration’s new “solar energy plan” for western states, where the vast majority of land is owned by the federal government. The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, is proposing a new plan for “Utility-Scale Solar Energy Development”  that is supposed to expand the development of solar projects across 11 western states. In fact, far from expediting the permitting of solar projects, the new solar plan throws pointless obstacles in their path and could shut down solar energy development in the desert West altogether.

I am no fan of solar energy—much less boondoggles that are viable only because of inordinate subsidies. But BLM’s presentation of the new solar plan to the public as fostering solar energy, when, in fact, it will do the opposite, is a violation of the public trust and will, in the end, contribute to the major energy crisis now looming on the horizon.

The 2012 solar plan, implemented during the Obama administration, sought to alleviate permitting bottlenecks amid a renewable energy project surge. It designated multiple solar energy zones across six southwestern states. These zones were intended as high-priority areas for development, chosen for their solar capacity and lack of “resource conflicts,” such as significant environmental and cultural impacts.

Predictably, however, the solar energy zones were generally in the middle of nowhere, hopelessly far from any transmission interconnection point. Developers balked, and few applications for solar energy development were ever even proposed for the zones.

Instead, developers favored areas closer to infrastructure and populations, which often raised resource concerns and triggered opposition from the Not in My Backyard (“NIMBY”) types and the Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody (“BANANAS”) crowd.

The Trump administration, in which I served as associate director of the Council on Environmental Quality, sought to cut the red tape facing all infrastructure projects. We significantly revised the council’s regulations to enhance project predictability and reduce delays. The main beneficiaries of these changes in the short term were renewable energy projects, which are disproportionately dependent on federal permits compared to fossil energy projects.

Regardless, the determined opposition of environmentalists led to a partial rollback under Biden. Partly as a result, less renewable electricity capacity was permitted in 2022 than in the last year of the Trump administration.

Significant permitting reforms were later incorporated into an unrelated bipartisan agreement to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in June 2023, codifying many of the Trump-era changes and marking a historic amendment to the National Environmental Policy Act and potentially streamlining future infrastructure development.

One of the most promising avenues for addressing the excessive burdens, delays, and uncertainties of the permitting and environmental review process is the programmatic review under the National Environmental Policy Act, particularly the programmatic environmental impact statement. The impact statement allows national policy to develop and guide the deployment of infrastructure across whole sectors and regions while giving due regard to local voices that often oppose anything in their backyard and often wield a veto.

The ideal impact statement would establish priority areas where resource conflicts are similar and can be mitigated with similar strategies. Such a statement could provide for expedited, uniform permitting for relevant projects, which can then rely on environmental assessments (rather than a full-blown environmental impact statement).

Unfortunately, the new solar plan goes in the other direction. After categorically excluding resource-sensitive areas, areas with slopes greater than 10%, and areas more than 10 miles from transmission lines, the 22 million acres left available for solar project development under BLM’s new plan reduces by more than half the 48 million acres available for solar project development under the 2012 solar plan.  

Even that acreage is only nominal, however, because a series of “unmapped exclusions” will, in practice, further reduce the amount of land available for development. These exclusions would either apply definitively or send the project into a regulatory amendment process that would complicate and delay the permitting process to a prohibitive degree for most projects, effectively ending them. 

The most prominent example of these unmapped exclusions relates to areas that are within the range of endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Currently, energy development in such areas is allowed, provided that concerned agencies engage in “consultation” to avoid, minimize, and mitigate any impacts.

Under the new plan, however, all such habitats would be categorically off-limits as soon as it is discovered that the land is occupied by a listed species. Any potential impacts to endangered species habitats that are discovered in the course of site surveys (usually after millions of dollars have already been expended on the project application) would kill the project entirely.

The permitting risk, already prohibitive for many new projects, could put whole states beyond the reach of all but the most hardy (or foolish) developers. The solar energy areas under the new solar plan overlap substantially with areas containing multiple endangered and threatened species. This endangered species exclusion alone would eliminate virtually all new solar development in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, which lead the nation in solar capacity per acre. 

Another blanket exclusion would apply to land with a greater than 10% slope. This is another nearly inexplicable exclusion given that solar capacity increases with elevation, which should make mountains prime solar development areas. 

BLM’s new plan also excludes areas farther than 10 miles from existing or planned high-voltage transmission lines. It makes sense to expedite permitting for projects close to transmission lines, but it makes little sense to automatically exclude projects beyond an arbitrary 10-mile band altogether.

The largest projects may have to be sited farther away because of resource conflicts, and economies of scale may make the longer “gen-ties” (the transmission lines that connect a power plant to the nearest high voltage lines) economical for those larger projects while also allowing greater sums to be invested in conflict mitigation.

Even for the 14% of BLM land left available for solar project development after all these exclusions, the new plan imposes onerous permitting requirements. These include some 600 mandatory design elements.

Some of these verge on the comical. BLM proposes a blanket prohibition on “grading” (leveling out land), which is indispensable for access roads, utility-scale batteries, transmission poles, and construction staging. The plan also prohibits development within 200 feet of ephemeral streams (those that come into existence, for example, after heavy rainfall, and then go away) and requires 75% residual vegetation around the development.

These requirements will be impossible to meet economically for many projects, and even where possible, would significantly expand the amount of land required per unit of electricity, thus defeating the goal of conservation. It’s clear that BLM didn’t consider cost or feasibility in developing these criteria or take developer views into account.

Most surprisingly, the new plan does not address any of the major problems that years of experience have revealed in the permitting process for solar and other energy projects on BLM land. On the contrary, it makes the permitting challenges even worse for existing projects applications, which are not “grandfathered” in any respect. Many solar project applications already in process will have to start over, and many of those applicants will prefer to cut their losses instead.

Many projects’ applications have been pending for years, and companies have already negotiated operational and power-purchase agreements of various kinds and would be bankrupted by having to start over.

This demonstrates a problem with heavily regulated sectors: Officials feel all too free to “move the goal posts” with little concern for the enormous losses they are causing developers and investors and little understanding that these are social losses that impact everybody.

For Americans to avoid a prolonged period of energy scarcity in the high-demand decade ahead, the nation will require a significant expansion in electricity generation. The bulk of that will need to come from nuclear and fossil sources, which are significantly more abundant, “energy dense,” and reliable than renewable sources like solar and wind.

With the EPA’s new fossil fuel power plant rules and the resulting and potentially devastating curtailments of fossil sources for generating electricity, Americans will soon need every megawatt of electricity they can get, from every available source.

Energy scarcity is looming on the horizon. Yet the Biden administration is not taking the problem of overall energy supply seriously.

It also has not taken the problem of inefficient permitting and environmental review seriously. The costs, delays, and uncertainties of the National Environmental Policy Act process hurt everyone. They constitute the most significant obstacle standing in the way of Biden’s own climate goals, and more importantly, they are depriving American families and communities of the modern electrical infrastructure they need and deserve.

The new solar plan is being promoted as a partial solution, but even a brief review shows clearly that it will only make those problems worse. The plan is a clear sellout to left-wing environmentalists. And it shows that while those environmentalists hate fossil fuels, they don’t particularly love renewable energy—or energy of any kind.

They mean to save the planet for what they think is the planet’s sake, not for our sake. And if in the process they plunge the world into energy scarcity—a much grimmer fate than all the doomsday climate scenarios put together—in their minds, that’s just too bad for us.