Federal Solar Environmental Review(9-FD)
A utility-scale solar developer needs to consider many environmental issues when developing a solar project. This section discusses the environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and many related environmental topics typically found in a NEPA review document, including:
- Cultural Resources;
- Biological Resources;
- Land Use Assessment;
- Water Quality
- Air Quality; and
- Waste & Hazardous Materials.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) established policy and goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment and outlines the process for implementing these goals within federal agencies. Projects that involve a "major federal action" trigger the NEPA process. Generally, NEPA review is necessary if the project is on federal land, the federal government owns the mineral estate, the project receives federal funding or support, or if where the project requires a federal permit.
The level and scope of the NEPA review will vary depending on the nature of the project and the level of involvement by federal agencies. A small amount of project activities may qualify as “casual use” and are otherwise exempt form NEPA review. Other project activities are “categorically excluded” from NEPA review by statute or regulation. Most projects activities require either an Environmental Assessment or a more detailed and time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement. Finally, where previous NEPA review of related activities is sufficient, certain project activities may be exempt from NEPA review after a Determination of NEPA Adequacy.
Generally, NEPA review considers the social, environmental, and economic impacts of a proposed activity and considers alternatives. NEPA review takes a “hard look” at the proposed activity by encouraging agency cooperation, soliciting public input and conducting tribal consultation where applicable.
NEPA review is conducted by a "lead agency.” A “lead agency" is the federal agency responsible for producing the NEPA document(s) and coordinating with any other federal, state, or tribal agencies. For most projects, the lead agency will be the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the United States Forest Service (USFS), the Department of Energy (DOE), or the United States Department of Defense (DOD). Each agency has specific regulations for implementing NEPA, however, all agencies’ regulations derive from and are guided by the procedural NEPA requirements outlined in the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Regulations.
For any project, developers should initially determine which agency will be the “lead agency” for NEPA review. While not necessarily dispotive, developers can start by contacting the applicable land management agency based on the project location. If the applicable land management agency (likely BLM or USFS) is not the lead agency for project NEPA review, the agency will likely be able to assist the developer in determining which other agency is the lead agency for the project (potentially DOE or DOD).
Determine Which Federal Permits Apply
Use this overview flowchart and following steps to learn which federal and state permits apply to your projects.
Permitting at a Glance
|Environmental Review:||National Environmental Policy Act||National Environmental Policy Act|
|Environmental Review Agency:||United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Energy, United States Department of Defense||United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Energy, United States Department of Defense|
|Type of Environmental Review (Leasing Stage):||Typically an Environmental Assessment (EA) is conducted for individual leases or rights-of-way. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) may be required for programmatic environmental reviews or when reviewing multiple lease parcels or rights-of-way in a single review.||Typically an Environmental Assessment (EA) is conducted for individual leases or rights-of-way. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) may be required for programmatic environmental reviews or when reviewing multiple lease parcels or rights-of-way in a single review.|
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