Variance Process for Solar Energy Applications
This policy enhances consistency and workflow efficiency for the variance process by clarifying the requirements to assess the appropriateness of a solar proposal in a variance area under the 2012 Western Solar Plan, as well as cost recovery.
This Instruction Memorandum (IM) identifies the requirements for assessing applications for solar development on public lands allocated as variance areas under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM’s) 2012 Western Solar Plan. In accordance with Federal regulations under Title 43 Part 2800, the BLM will notify applicants in writing upon receipt of their application and identify the required processing fees for the reimbursement of reasonable costs for application processing. Pursuant to 43 CFR 2804.14(d), after an initial review of the application, the BLM will notify the applicant of the processing category into which their application fits and incorporate the application filing fees into this determination. The applicant must then submit the appropriate payment for that category before the BLM begins processing the application. The variance review and concurrence process, required under the BLM’s 2012 Western Solar Plan, is part of processing applications in variance areas, and therefore cost recovery is appropriate consistent with 43 CFR 2804.19(e). As the BLM develops cost recovery estimates for the processing of applications, the BLM should consider all reasonable costs that may be incurred by the BLM and other Federal agencies and ensure all measures are taken to appropriately collect and manage these funds.
Screening and prioritization of applications is required to reduce Bureau workloads on projects that are less likely to be developed and to facilitate accelerated processing and decision-making for projects with the greatest technical and financial feasibility and the least anticipated natural and cultural resource conflicts, and to enhance Bureau consistency. As such, the variance process policy herein shall be applied only once an application has been initially screened and prioritized, refer to IM-2022-027, Initial Screening and Prioritization for Solar and Wind Energy Applications and Nominations/Expressions of Interests, and the appropriate amount of cost recovery processing fees have been collected from the applicant. Applications in variance areas that the Authorized Officer has ranked as high- or medium-priority are eligible to move into the variance process. Any low priority applications in a variance area shall not proceed into the variance process until the BLM office of jurisdiction has completed the review of higher priority applications in that area.
Once the BLM has all necessary application information and materials from the proponent, the variance process, outlined in Attachments 1 and 6, is expected to take approximately six months (starting with a complete application to variance memo concurrence or denial). In order to start the variance process, the applicant must submit a complete variance application package, and the BLM must determine that the application is a high or medium priority. The timeline may be shorter or longer based on the circumstances of each application.
The BLM shall ensure that applicants have proactively evaluated and comprehensively described the reasonably foreseeable effects that the proposed project would have on the following: social and economic effects on the population in the area; rural lifestyles; air quality; visual impact; surface and groundwater quality and quantify; change to any stream or body of water; existing noise levels; surface of the land, including vegetation, permafrost, soil, soil stability; historic or archaeological resources or properties; populations of fish, plant life, wildlife, marine life, threatened and endangered species, marine mammals (refer toRight-of-Way (ROW) Application Standard Form 299 (SF-299) items 16-18). The BLM will consider whether the application should move through the variance process and continue to be processed based on, among other things, the sufficiency of the applicant’s comprehensive evaluation of reasonably foreseeable effects and applicant-proposed specific mitigation measures. Generalized mitigation statements (e.g., “All impacts will be mitigated.”) will not be acceptable.
Based on the BLM’s evaluation of the information provided by the applicant, input of Federal, State, and local government agencies, Tribes, and the public, the BLM Authorized Officer will determine whether it is appropriate to continue to process the application through the variance process, request the applicant to modify the application using a request for additional information, or deny the application. The BLM may also consider whether the applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solar project is expected to be compatible with state and local plans and will likely be able to acquire the required permits and/or authorizations of all other relevant jurisdictions to implement the project.
The BLM has broad discretion under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to deny ROW applications prior to initiating or completing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. Such decisions must be made with regard for the public interest and be supported by reasoned analysis and an adequate administrative record. Denial of an application by the BLM is subject to administrative appeal to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.
All ROW applications in variance areas that the BLM determines to be appropriate for continued processing will, at the applicant’s expense, be processed in compliance with NEPA and all other applicable laws, regulations, and policies. Generally, the BLM uses the NEPA process to help support compliance with applicable procedural requirements under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (16 USC 1536) and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (54 USC 306108), and their implementing regulations. When a project proponent applies for a ROW in a variance area, the BLM should advise the proponent that its application might be denied and that the proponent’s financial commitments in connection with the application will not be a factor in the BLM’s evaluation process.
Where the BLM determines it appropriate, the Bureau has discretion to consider a solar project proposed within an exclusion area. Before authorizing any such solar project, however, the BLM must complete a land use plan amendment or revision to lift the exclusion. In instances where the BLM completes a project-specific land use plan amendment, the BLM does not need to complete the variance process.
The materials and process described in this policy are required for solar development applications proposed on variance lands subject to the Western Solar Plan. However, where BLM State leadership determines that the adaptation and use of these materials and the process framework (excluding the requirement of Director concurrence) would be in the public interest, they may be used for any renewable energy development application in States not subject to the Western Solar Plan.
A Concurrence Memo of the BLM Director, with a State Director’s determination of appropriateness, is required for a variance application for solar development to be processed. Concurrence by the BLM Director does not constitute an approval of the proposed project; rather, it would allow the BLM to continue processing the application and initiate its NEPA process, including public scoping and the preparation of an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement. Through the process, the BLM can complete a site-specific analysis of potential impacts from the development of the proposed project. Once completed, the NEPA analysis would serve as the basis for any future decision to either approve, approve with modifications, or deny the project. The Concurrence Memo (Attachment 5), the Briefing Paper (Attachment 4), and Variance Factor Analysis Report (Attachment 2) that includes relevant information from Attachment 4, are required to be included in the DTS surnaming package that State Director sends to BLM Headquarters leadership.
 Variance areas are BLM-administered lands identified in the 2012 Western Solar Plan as potentially available to applications for utility-scale solar energy rights-of-way with special stipulations or considerations that are outside of exclusion areas and SEZs, except where those allocations have been superseded by subsequent BLM land use planning decisions (e.g. the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan).
 Reasonable costs are defined in Section 304(b) of FLPMA (43 U.S.C. 1734(b)).
 Exclusion areas are BLM-administered lands identified in the 2012 Western Solar Plan as areas that are not available for location of solar or wind rights-of-way under any conditions based on the criteria in Table A-2 of the Western Solar Plan. Exclusion areas for solar development included approximately 78.6 million acres unless superseded by subsequent BLM land use planning decisions.
This policy is effective immediately.
President Biden has set ambitious goals that will ensure America and the world can meet the urgent demands of the climate crisis, while empowering American workers and businesses to lead a renewable energy revolution that achieves a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and puts the United States on an irreversible path to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. Per Section 207 of Executive Order 14008, the Department of the Interior is identifying steps to accelerate responsible renewable energy production on public lands and waters to support climate and environmental goals. In addition, the Energy Act of 2020 requires the Secretary of the Interior to establish national minimum goals for renewable energy production on Federal land, and to seek to permit at least 25 gigawatts of electricity from wind, solar, and geothermal energy not later than 2025 through management of public lands and administration of Federal laws.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) BLM finalized the Western Solar Plan—a programmatic amendment to Land Use Plans (LUPs) in six southwestern states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah)—to facilitate utility-scale solar energy by designating Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in areas of low resource conflict, access to transmission, and a high potential for solar energy development on public lands. The Western Solar Plan also established a process to allow for the development of utility-scale solar energy development outside of SEZs known as the variance process. Lands outside of SEZs were identified as either exclusion areas for lands that were inappropriate for solar energy development or as variance areas to accommodate the flexibility for responsible utility-scale solar development on lands that were not designated as SEZs. The requirement for Director concurrence through the variance process applies only to applications for utility-scale solar development, defined in the Western Solar Plan as proposed projects capable of generating 20 megawatts or more of electricity, in variance areas. All non-utility-scale proposed solar energy projects, including distributed generation, would follow existing management prescriptions in BLM land use plans. This policy may not apply to proposed projects in areas governed by land use plans that the BLM has amended or revised to change the procedures for authorizing utility-scale solar development in the Western Solar Plan.
 Any “new” and “pending” applications prioritized as high or medium priority and filed after October 28, 2011, will follow the variance process. Projects submitted before October 29, 2011, will be processed consistent with LUP decisions in place prior to amendment by the Western Solar Plan.
If you have any questions concerning the content of this IM, please contact Jeremy Bluma, Acting Division Chief, National Renewable Energy Coordination Office, at 208-789-6014 or email@example.com.
The BLM National Renewable Energy Coordination Office (HQ-330) coordinated the preparation of this IM with relevant BLM State Offices. The Department of the Interior Solicitor’s Office reviewed and provided input to this policy prior to its finalization.