The recently published Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Blythe Solar project provides some insight to the Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT), which is the inter-agency task force addressing expedited renewable energy permitting process and environmental mitigation. The REAT consists of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), and the California Energy Commission (CEC). If this inter-agency team can implement its policy tools quickly enough, it could have a positive effect on efforts to mitigate damage done by industrial-scale energy development in the desert, but the current proposed schedule for REAT calls this into question.
In order to achieve the goal of expedited renewable energy permitting while preserving sensitive habitat and species in California's deserts, the REAT plans to produce a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). According to the CEC Staff Assessment, the DRECP would be a science-based process for reviewing and permitting renewable energy projects in the desert, and would provide a framework for implementing regionally coordinated land acquisition and mitigation to off-set the negative affects of the renewable energy rush on desert biological resources.
According to the CEC, the REAT plans to have a streamlined mitigation mechanism in place by the end of 2010. As evidenced during the CEC hearings for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), the CEC's proposed mitigation conditions for solar energy projects currently under review could eventually fall under the future REAT mechanism, if it is instituted in time. In the meantime, it is up to the renewable energy companies to independently identify and purchase mitigation lands, which could result in a patchwork of mitigation efforts that could prove more effective if they were consolidated under REAT and focused on acquiring high quality or most sensitive habitat.
The CEC also noted that the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is not expected to be completed until 2012. Given the rush of renewable energy applications, and the immense pressure the developers and the CEC are under to have the projects break ground by the end of 2010 in order to qualify for Federal government financial backing (read about the here), I wonder if by 2012 enough of the Mojave Desert will have been industrialized to require much more drastic conservation measures than trying to squeeze in a few more industrial scale projects. If wise decisions are not made for the current slate of proposed solar energy projects, the threat to the Mojave Desert ecosystem and species may reach a point by 2012 that habitat fragmentation, failed tortoise tanslocations, and negative impacts on State waters and sensitive plant species will incur enough harm by 2012 resulting in:
1.) the mitigation requirements for energy projects in 2012 will have to account for a more dire ecological situation and thus be more expensive for energy companies,
2.) a shortage of good quality mitigation lands available for conservation,
3.) an increase in the number of sensitive species needing protection and mitigation as a result of a deterioration in overall habitat connectivity and quality throughout the State.
All the more reason for the CEC and REAT partners to be extra-judicious at this stage of the project, so that renewable energy siting is carried out with an eye toward a sustainable and healthy renewable energy industry and a sustainable and healthy Mojave Desert.
There are other legal and policy considerations that currently complicate the efforts by various agencies involved in the permitting process to conserve mitigation lands. For example, the REAT partners are currently looking for a way to meet a condition set forth by the CEC and DFG (both are State of California entities) that mitigation lands acquired by energy companies to off-set damages must be preserved in perpetuity. This condition set forth by the State creates difficulties for BLM, which cannot hold land for conservation in perpetuity under existing rules since BLM lands must also be available for other public and economic uses. The REAT partners are considering the feasibility of identifying privately held lands within existing BLM Desert Wildlife Management Areas--which have already been set aside for conservation--that could be acquired for mitigation purposes and also meet the State's "in-perpetuity" requirement. In addition to this tool, the REAT may also consider conservation easements and "right of way exclusion" zones that would provide permanent protection for acquired mitigation land placed under BLM management.