House Republicans accused the Obama administration on Thursday of employing a double standard in favor of renewable energy when leasing out federal lands, pointing in particular to a controversial solar project in California.
The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Mojave Desert became the focal point of a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing. Republicans complained that the plant owners have not been punished for killing birds, and pointed to the federal government’s sizable investment in a plant that produces more expensive energy than fossil fuels.
The plant, which is owned by NRG Energy, Google and BrightSource Energy, received $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees ahead of its opening in 2013, and has also received more than $500 million in federal grants.
Republicans criticized that financial assistance, especially to a plant with such well-financed parent corporations. They also pointed to a concerning number of bird deaths at the plant. Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said “thousands of birds” have been killed at Ivanpah, although experts have debated the specifics of whether the plant creates more of a hazard for birds than any other man-made structure.
Labrador pointed to a case in which a traditional fuel company, Brigham Oil and Gas, was charged with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act because of two dead birds found near their facilities, although a court dismissed those charges. Regardless, Labrador accused the Obama administration of letting Ivanpah skirt the law.
“It seems like they’re getting preferential treatment with money,” Labrador said. “Now they’re getting preferential treatment with enforcement as well.”
The administration’s lone witness at the hearing, Bureau of Land Management Assistant Director Mike Nedd, was unable to answer many of the committee’s questions, which focused on the administration’s stance on the country’s energy resources and on the plant’s potential danger to migratory birds. Those questions are more in the wheelhouse of the Department of Energy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which declined to send representatives to the hearing.
Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, the oversight subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, called the hearing a waste of time, designed to take shots at the Obama administration rather than genuinely discuss its energy policies.
Dingell conceded that the solar plant has underperformed in terms of electricity production in its first few years, but said that’s improving. Nedd testified that the plant had met all of its financial obligations to the government, such as lease payments.
“I do think today’s hearing is designed to sort of become the grand finale, as we approach the end of the Obama administration, to [ask], ‘How do we embarrass this administration again?'” Dingell said.
Dingell also offered a slew of counterpoints to Republicans’ complaints about the administration’s alleged bias in favor of renewables. Renewable producers pay at least $17.24 per acre of leased BLM lands, and that rent can reach $6,000 per acre, depending on the location, Nedd said. Coal producers, meanwhile, pay $3 per acre plus royalty fees, and oil and gas producers pay $1.50 to $2 per acre, plus royalty fees.
Overall, BLM has leased about 32 million acres of oil and gas production, 480,000 for coal and about 300,000 for renewables, Nedd said.
“I think we’ve found a bias here, and I wouldn’t call it in favor of renewables,” Dingell said.
Beyond the topic of federal funding and birds, the hearing didn’t delve deeply into the pros and cons of renewable energy projects on federal land. Subcommittee Chairman Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) had a few odd exchanges with the plant’s supporters. At one point, he asked Nedd if it was possible to paint or “camouflage” the mirrored solar panels. Nedd said he wasn’t sure, but added that all projects go through an environmental mitigation process.
At another point, Gohmert said he had been hunting in the area of an oil and gas lease, “and wildlife really proliferates” in those areas, while solar and wind projects have negative impacts on wildlife. When American Council on Renewable Energy CEO Gregory Wetstone said he disagreed, Gohmert replied, “Well, you’ve obviously never hunted on top of a solar facility.”