Bureau of Land Management Solar Energy Program Western Solar Plan
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NEPA Review for Projects in SEZs

As part of the Solar PEIS, the BLM has conducted a thorough environmental review of the SEZs with the intent for future reviews of projects within SEZs to tier to the existing analysis.

Site-Specific Environmental Review for Projects in SEZs

The BLM will complete a site-specific environmental review of all solar energy projects in solar energy zones (SEZs) in accordance with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) prior to issuing a project authorization. As part of the Solar PEIS, the BLM has conducted a thorough environmental review of the SEZs so that future reviews of projects within SEZs can tier to the existing NEPA analysis, thereby limiting the required scope for additional project-specific NEPA analyses.

Tiering refers to using the coverage of general matters in a broader NEPA document, such as the Solar PEIS, in a subsequent, narrower NEPA document (40 CFR 1508.28, 40 CFR 1502.20) This allows the tiered NEPA document to narrow the analysis and concentrate solely on the issues not already addressed. Tiering is appropriate when the analysis for the proposed action will be a more site-specific or project-specific refinement or extension of the existing NEPA document. Tiering is expected to reduce redundant analysis and streamline the NEPA process for projects in SEZs.

For additional information on tiering, refer to the BLM NEPA Handbook H-1790-1 Section 5.2.2.

Tiering to the SEZ Analysis in the Solar PEIS

All future projects in SEZs will tier to the analysis in the Solar PEIS. The extent of this tiering will vary from project to project depending on the site-specific situation. While the SEZ analysis in the Solar PEIS analyzes the likely environmental effects of utility-scale solar energy development and identifies required SEZ-specific design features to address many resource conflicts, further site-specific evaluation could be required for individual solar projects. It is expected that certain resource areas such as groundwater and surface hydrology will typically require additional NEPA analysis to further understand potential impacts.

A NEPA document tiered to the Solar PEIS should:

  1. state that it is tiered to the Solar PEIS;
  2. describe the Solar PEIS SEZ section(s) to which it is tiered;
  3. incorporate by reference the relevant portions of the SEZ analysis from the Solar PEIS, including SEZ-specific design features that may apply (specific sections of the Solar PEIS should be cited and the findings summarized; relevant information can be found in the analysis for individual SEZs in both the Draft and Final Solar PEIS);
  4. determine what impacts of the proposed project are outside of the scope of the analysis for the SEZ in which it is located; and
  5. fully analyze such impacts and determine the potential significance of such impacts (this will inform the level of tiered NEPA analysis that will be required).

At this time the BLM has not completed any NEPA documents tiered to the Solar PEIS. However, the BLM has completed NEPA documents tiered to other BLM Programmatic EISs such as the Wind Energy PEIS, which could serve as examples for solar projects (see the Spring Valley Wind Environmental Assessment (EA) tiered to the Wind Energy PEIS).

Level of Tiered NEPA Documentation

The level of tiered NEPA documentation to be required for an individual solar energy project in an SEZ will be determined by the BLM authorized officer in coordination with the BLM Washington Office, consistent with the Council on Environmental Quality's NEPA regulations (40 CFR Parts 1500-1508), U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) NEPA procedures (43 CFR Part 46), and the BLM NEPA Handbook (H-1790-1).

The BLM authorized officer will determine whether potential environmental impacts associated with a proposed project are within the scope of the analysis considered in the Solar PEIS for a given SEZ. If not, the authorized officer must determine the potential significance of any impacts outside the scope of existing analysis, and appropriate NEPA analysis must be completed. No matter the level of NEPA documentation, tiered analyses for projects in SEZs are expected to be narrowly focused on those issues not already adequately analyzed in the Solar PEIS.

An EA can be prepared for an action with significant effects, whether the effects are direct, indirect, or cumulative, if the EA tiers to a broader EIS that fully analyzed those significant effects. Tiering to the Solar PEIS would allow the preparation of an EA and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for an individual solar project, so long as any additional effects of the individual action not analyzed in the Solar PEIS are not significant. The FONSI in these circumstances may also be called a “Finding of No New Significant Impact” (43 CFR 46.140(c)).

If an individual action is anticipated to have significant effects not considered in the Solar PEIS, tiering to the PEIS cannot provide the necessary analysis to support a FONSI for the individual action. In these cases, an EIS would need to be prepared that tiers, to the extent practicable, to the Solar PEIS (43 CFR 46.140(c)).

Public Involvement

Through the Solar PEIS, extensive public involvement specific to solar energy development in SEZs has occurred. The BLM will use this input to inform future development in SEZs. Additional public involvement for projects in SEZs will not be required to exceed the requirements of NEPA.

Updated: 1/30/2017