Amended BLM Right Of Way Regulations

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published amended rules governing rights of way granted under Title V of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (“FLPMA”) and under the Mineral Leasing Act (for oil or gas pipeline rights of way) on December 19, 2016, 81 Fed. Reg. 92,122 (https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-12-19/pdf/2016-27551.pdf).  The rules take effect January 18, 2017, assuming they are not affected by Congressional efforts to undo “midnight rules” promulgated by the outgoing Administration.  The amended rules are most significant for their changes to the processes for obtaining authorizations to use federal lands for solar and wind energy development.  However, the amendments will also affect, to a lesser extent, oil and gas operators who seek FLPMA rights of way for roads or water pipelines, or Mineral Leasing Act rights of way for oil and gas pipelines.  Please see our earlier blog discussing the proposed rule amending the right of way regulations at http://www.wsmtlaw.com/blog/blm-buries-change-to-mla-rights-of-way-in-wind-and-solar-leasing-change.html.  

Until now, the BLM’s policy on processing right of way applications for renewable energy projects was contained in instruction memoranda.  Those policies, as modified in the final rule, are now contained in the regulations to be codified in 43 C.F.R. Part 2800.  

The rule seeks to focus wind and solar energy development in areas called designated leasing areas or “DLAs” which BLM has determined, through the land use planning process, as areas having high energy generation potential, access to existing or proposed transmission lines, and low potential for conflict with other resources. The preamble to the rule points to solar energy zones identified in the Solar Programmatic EIS and “development focus areas” identified in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan for southern California as examples of DLAs.  Outside of the southern California desert, no DLAs for wind energy development have yet been identified and, given the long timeline for BLM planning processes, it seems unlikely that any will be developed in the near term.  With some exceptions, lands within DLAs will be offered for competitive leasing, while solar or wind energy development proposals outside DLAs will be processed for right of way grants.  BLM believes that the issuance of a competitive 30-year lease will increase certainty for developers of wind and solar energy projects as compared to 30-year right of way grants, which are not issued until well into the project development process.  

Another goal of the rule is to ensure that the government receives fair market value for solar and wind energy development on public lands.  It does so by imposing both an acreage rent based on agricultural land values and a megawatt (MW) capacity fee.  The calculation of the MW capacity fee will result in a decrease in fees to solar energy producers but an increase in fees to wind energy developers as compared to current BLM policy.  In addition, the acreage rent had not previously been imposed on wind energy developers.  The fees for linear rights of way such as pipelines and transmission lines should not be significantly affected by the rule as compared to current policy.  

The new rule contains extensive provisions on bond requirements which will be codified in 43 C.F.R. §2805.20.  Solar and wind energy producers must post a performance and reclamation bond, which will be based on a reclamation cost estimate (RCE) but shall be no less than $10,000 per disturbed acre for solar projects or $10,000 per authorized wind turbine with less than 1 MW nameplate capacity or $20,000 per turbine with a nameplate capacity of 1 or more MW.  Although bonds are required for wind and solar projects, the BLM retains the discretion whether to require a performance and reclamation bond for other rights of way, including for oil and gas pipelines (§2885.11(b)(7)).  As in the existing regulation covering oil and gas pipeline rights of way, the BLM can require a bond, or an increased bond amount, either as a condition to the right of way grant or at any time during the term of the grant.  Amended §2885.11(b)(7) states that all “other provisions in §2805.12(b) of this chapter regarding bond requirements for grants and leases issued under FLPMA also apply to grants or [temporary use permits] for oil and gas pipelines issued under this part.”  The reference to §2805.12(b) appears to be in error; the preamble to the new rule notes that this sentence references “new section 2805.20” and §2805.20 is the regulation on bonding requirements.  Among those “other provisions” in §2805.20 is one that provides the bond amount will be determined based on the preparation of a RCE, which the BLM may require the applicant or grant holder to submit.  The RCE is defined as the estimate of costs to restore the land to a condition that will support pre-disturbance land uses, including the cost to remove all improvements made under the right of way authorization, return the land to approximate original contour, and establish a sustainable vegetative community.  The RCE must also include the cost to BLM to administer a reclamation contract.  It is likely that these requirements will result in larger bonds being required for linear rights of way, including oil and gas pipelines. 

The new rule provides that not only transfers of rights of way by assignment be submitted to BLM for approval but also “changes in ownership or other related change in control transactions,” including corporate mergers or acquisitions but not transactions within the same corporate family.  §2807.21.  This change also applies to Mineral Leasing Act rights of way for oil and gas pipelines, §2887.11.  BLM’s rationale for this requirement is that a merger or other corporate acquisition can result in material changes to corporate structure which could affect the financial or technical capability of the grant holder.  Because a change of control is not an “assignment,” we suspect that many grant holders may overlook this requirement to obtain BLM approval for “transfers” of right of way grants in cases of mergers or change of control by a stock transaction.

Operators of wind and solar energy projects on public lands will need to review the new rules in detail.  Because this rulemaking process focused on the changes to the right of way regulations that apply to wind and solar energy projects, it is likely that other current or prospective right of way holders such as pipeline, transmission line or communications facilities operators may not realize the effect of the revised rules on their projects. 

 

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Gold King Mine Accident Highlights Risks Posed by Abandoned Mines

On August 5, 2015, EPA personnel were working with a private contractor on a water quality project at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. The intent of the project was to assess ongoing mine water leakage and to identify and evaluate options for additional mine water treatment and for reduction in the amount of mine water that flows into Cement Creek. In the course of this project, workers inadvertently damaged a tailings pond that had been built to slow and treat mine water outflow. This resulted in destruction of the pond and a discharge of over 3 million gallons of mine waste water and tailings into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

Since this event, EPA officials have engaged in ongoing water quality testing and report that contamination levels in the Animas River have decreased to pre-spill levels. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has reached similar conclusions and reports that the river has returned to “stable” conditions which means that that are no human health concerns during typical recreational exposure.

The Gold King Mine was abandoned in 1923, and according to the EPA, mine tailings were directly released into the creeks and rivers in the area until the 1930s. Prior to this 2015 accident, contaminated mine water flowed from this mine at a rate of approximately 7 gallons per minute. That rate briefly increased to more than 500 gallons per minute immediately following the accident. The EPA had previously sought to list the Gold King Mine and surrounding area as a Superfund site which would have provided additional funding for environmental remediation and clean-up. Community input, however, raised concerns about the effect of Superfund status on tourism. As a result, the EPA agreed to postpone seeking Superfund status for the site as long as measurable progress could be made to improve the water quality absent such status.

The accident at the Gold King Mine emphasizes the risks posed by the legacy of mines that were opened, operated and abandoned in the western U.S decades ago during a time when neither the technology nor the regulations necessary for effective water quality protection existed. The Gold King Mine is one of approximately 23,000 such abandoned mines in Colorado, 6127 of which have been reclaimed by the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. The BLM lists 3400 abandoned mines on BLM-managed lands in Colorado. In the Upper Animas Watershed, where the Gold King Mine is located, there are approximately 400 abandoned and inactive mine sites. Numerous reclamation projects have been completed in that watershed over the last 20 years.

The BLM’s Abandoned Mine Lands Program was created in 1997 to reduce dangers to the public, public lands and the environment from health and other adverse impacts related to hard rock mines at which operations ceased prior to 1981. As of 2014, this Program had over 46,000 abandoned mine sites in its inventory. Of those, approximately one-quarter are remediated, are sites that do not require remediation, or are sites at which remediation actions have commenced.

These site clean-up and remediation actions on federal lands are governed by various federal statutes including the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The lack of a robust federal budget for clean-up of abandoned mine sites and the liability that can attach to non-government actors who attempt clean-up of mine sites has inhibited progress towards addressing this mining legacy in Western states.

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