WASHINGTON - The Bureau of Land Management Thursday banned new mining claims on 13,735 acres of land in Arizona, one of six Western states where the government is considering “solar-energy zones.”
The move extends a temporary segregation of 677,384 acres that expired Wednesday in 24 prospective solar-energy zones in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The extension effectively prohibits new mining claims on those lands until June 30, 2013.
Arizona’s three zones are located in La Paz, Maricopa and Yavapai counties.
The move is aimed at protecting solar projects from mining claims, which would take priority over a solar development application.
Solar project developers faced with a mining claim can buy out the claim, wait until a claim’s validity is determined or relocate their projects. All have the potential to add significant time and costs.
In an April notice, the bureau said the extension was needed to head off “speculative” mining claims that could be filed “to compel some kind of payment” from a solar developer to relinquish the mining claim.
From 2009 to 2011, the bureau received 216 new mining claims in areas designated for solar development after the areas’ locations were made public. BLM’s Arizona office said this week it found no mining claims in the state’s three solar-energy zones.
The National Mining Association said in a written statement to the bureau that the extension is “unjustified in light of existing tools the agency has.” It said the segregation has “the potential to significantly impact legitimate mining claims.”
But others defended the segregation.
“This is not an issue with legitimate miners,” said Henri Bisson, president of the Public Lands Foundation and a former BLM deputy director of operations.
“Until they (the bureau) complete the process and make a decision on how to approach leasing in these areas, it’s essential they protect them from other intrusions,” he said.
The segregation of the solar-energy zones is intended to give the BLM more time to complete an environmental assessment required for a possible five-year withdrawal of the lands for solar-energy development. It is part of the bureau’s effort to speed up the approval process for renewable-energy projects.
The Interior Department, which includes the BLM, is under congressional and executive mandates to develop and expedite renewable-energy projects on public lands.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 set a goal for Interior to have renewable-energy projects generating a combined 10,000 megawatts on public lands by 2015.
In February 2010, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the “production, development and delivery of renewable energy” one of the department’s highest priorities.
Approved and installed renewable-energy projects on bureau lands currently have a capacity of more than 5,200 megawatts. Another 19 renewable-energy projects — representing more than 4,000 megawatts and including solar, wind and geothermal — were given “priority status” this year, according to the BLM’s renewable-energy website.
Supporters of the segregation decision say it’s an important step toward achieving the Interior Department’s renewable-energy goal.