Obama nominates Neil Kornze for top BLM post

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U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Neil Kornze for director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Kornze would head a bureau that manages more than 245 million acres of public land under a multiple-use and sustained yield mission as well as 700 million sub-surface acres of mineral estate.

The office has played a leading role in fulfilling the Obama Administration’s new energy goals, which includes large-scale production of solar, wind, geothermal and biomass energy. The BLM likewise manages federal onshore oil, gas and coal operations.

Kornze’s selection signals a continuation of the White House’s aggressive development of renewable energy projects on public lands. Kornze is regarded as a main architect of the Obama administration’s public lands solar policy during his tenure as acting deputy director for Policy and Programs from October 2011 through March 2013 and played a major role in developing the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar development in six southwestern states, the cornerstone of the administration’s renewable energy policy also known as the Western Solar Plan.

Last year, the Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, approved the Western Solar Plan, which provides a blueprint for utility-scale solar energy permitting in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah by establishing solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission, incentives for development within those zones, and a process through which to consider additional zones and solar projects.

The Western Solar Plan established an initial set of 17 Solar Energy Zones, totaling about 285,000 acres of public lands, that serve as priority areas for commercial-scale solar development, with the potential for additional zones through ongoing and future regional planning processes. Two additional Solar Energy Zones were designated in 2013 in Arizona and California. If fully built out, projects in the designated areas could produce as much as 27 GW of solar energy — enough to power approximately 8 million homes. The program can also review and approve on a case-by-case basis solar projects outside the Solar Energy Zones on about 19 million acres in "variance" areas.

Since 2010, the BLM has approved 25 utility-scale solar energy projects, including connected-action projects that include electric transmission support authorizations, with a total approved capacity of more than 8 GW. In addition, the BLM currently has some 70 pending solar energy applications.

Kornze, a Nevada native, would replace fellow Nevadan Bob Abbey, who stepped down as BLM Director in May 2012.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell praised Kornze’s qualifications for the post. "Neil has helped implement forward-looking reforms at the BLM to promote energy development in areas of minimal conflict, drive landscape-level planning efforts, and dramatically expand the agency’s use of technology to speed up the process for energy permitting."

Jewell added, "For more than a decade, Neil has been a key player in many of the nation’s major natural resource policy issues and has a reputation for being creative and results-oriented. His record at the BLM is marked by an inclusive approach and an openness to new ideas as the agency supports efforts to foster economic opportunities through safe and responsible energy development and increased access to the nation’s system of conservation lands."