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Tracking Public Clean Energy Innovation Investments: DOI’s New Energy Frontier

The Department of the Interior (DOI), nicknamed the “Department of Everything Else,” was founded in 1849 and charged with the responsibility of managing the country’s internal development of public lands and national welfare.  Since its creation, the department has exercised control over land and resource management and wildlife conservation, and sought to preserve America’s natural heritage with a steady annual budget of around $11 billion for the past several years.  While the DOI budget does not typically receive significant attention or scrutiny like the budgets for DOE or DOD, this year the department was highlighted as a potential gateway for renewable energy deployment, both in the President’s FY13 budget request, and during the State of the Union, when President Obama called for “the development of clean technology on enough public land to power three million homes.”

The program within the DOI undertaking these initiatives is called the New Energy Frontier.  The program was started by Secretary Ken Salazar in 2009 with a mission to advance domestic exploration and production of both renewable and conventional energy on the “one-fifth of the nation’s landmass and 1.7 billion acres off its shores” managed by the DOI.  Secretary Salazar has commented a number of times on the importance of committing to the development of renewable energy on public lands as one of the Department’s highest priorities – and the program has begun to gather momentum with the approval of 29 commercial-scale renewable energy projects, including 16 solar, five wind, and eight geothermal projects on federal lands since 2009.

Although the “New Energy Frontier” moniker has been used occasionally during the past year, project specifics continue to remain publicly vague, especially details of specific projects; part of the reason for this ambiguity is the program’s budget structure.  Funding for the New Energy Frontier program comes from contributions from six different bureaus within the DOI – specifically the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Each bureau contributes resources towards the domestic advancement of both renewable and conventional energy.

Upon quick analysis of the FY2013 New Energy Frontier budget proposal a few details are unavoidably noticeable:

  • Although renewable energy investment is referred to as a “major component” of the program’s strategy, renewable energy development has continuously received only 11 percent of the total New Energy Frontier funds during the last three years.
  • Correspondingly, pursuit of conventional energy development – specifically offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling – is the crux of the New Energy Frontier program, with proposed appropriations for FY2013 of $662 million, an additional 10 percent increase from FY2012 estimated spending.

In support of the New Energy Frontier program in FY2010 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contributed $16.7 million to the “identification of prime renewable resource areas” and corridors for transmission, and $135.8 million towards oil and gas development on public lands.  Likewise, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) provided $31.7 million in FY2010 for offshore wind deployments, and $217.5 million for offshore drilling.  The budget requests for the New Energy Frontier program continue to increase each year, but the proportion of spending on renewable compared to conventional energy remains constant and consistently imbalanced.

While the New Energy Frontier program cites its initiatives to encourage greater development and deployment of renewable energy technologies on public land, further analysis reveals that the majority of funding for the program is devoted to pursuing America’s “old” energy frontier.  The Department of Interior has significant potential to be a major source of support for the deployment of clean energy technologies, but currently these efforts are outweighed by the New Energy Frontier’s pursuit of conventional energy development.


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