On 1 April, the California Energy Commission Staff posted its "opening brief" for the final consideration of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System site proposed for the northeastern Mojave Desert. Overall, it continues the trend that I've posted about before on this blog -- that the CEC is likely to rule in favor of BrightSource Energy building an approximately 3,237 acre solar field on biologically important public land. The next and final steps will be important in determining how much the private energy firms will be held accountable for mitigation procedures if they choose to develop on public land that is of biological value. It is in the interest of the public that energy firms, such as BrightSource, that propose building on land that holds so many threatened biological resources should be required to pay for conservation measures that can off-set the damage done by the project.
The CEC Staff's opening brief may be followed by a brief from BrightSource Energy, possibly a rebuttal to the many conditions recommended by the CEC Staff requiring BrightSource to fund the purchase of conservation land, and institute measures that aim to protect special status plants. You can read more about the measures and BrightSource's response in previous postings. Following an exchange of briefs, the next step should be the "presiding member's" final decision. The presiding member will determine whether or not BrightSource can build, and which conditions the company must meet in order to do so. We've already concluded that the decision will most likely favor the company's request to build. But will the CEC presiding member ultimately uphold the Staff's recommendations and require BrightSource to off-set the damage it will incur on the Mojave Desert?
In the CEC Staff's opening brief, they lay out a fairly sharp defense of the proposed mitigation conditions. Central to this is "BIO-17", which is the proposed requirement that BrightSource fund the purchase of conservation land and BLM desert tortoise conservation efforts. The Staff criticized BrightSource's request that BIO-17 be "gutted", in which BrightSource requests that mitigation be handled only by BLM, thus ditching most of the conservation costs requested by State agencies. This would clearly favor BrightSource since BLM would not be able to determine mitigation measures before a final decision is made by CEC. Also, the BLM's mitigation requirements generally do not involve the purchase of conservation land to set aside for endangered species. This means that BrightSource would pay much less, and there would be much less conservation effort to off-set the loss of prime desert tortoise habitat to the solar field. The presiding member should uphold the CEC Staff's proposed condition that BrightSource not only fund BLM mitigation requirements, but also CEC and California Department of Fish and Game land conservation requirements. If the full mitigation conditions proposed by the CEC Staff are not upheld, the project would be approved without any concrete measures in place to address the cumulative pressure placed on the desert tortoise by the project. This would set an unacceptable precedent.
The Staff also points out that although BrightSource reduced the footprint of their site to preserve special status plants in the northern portion (Ivanpah 3), the company did not embrace CEC Staff's recommendation for reduced footprint in the southern portions of the project, which contain rare desert pincushion and Mojave milkweed. The Staff thus argues that the CEC should uphold additional mitigation efforts for these plants.
Although previous postings and comments on this blog point out that even the proposed mitigation efforts are imperfect, and may not result in complete mitigation for desert tortoise, special status plants, and bighorn sheep grazing territory, an absence of such conditions would spell doom for the Mojave Desert and its threatened species. Moreover, an absence of such conditions would leave the door open for other energy companies to make poor decisions when choosing where to build industrial scale energy projects. These mitigation requirements help express the value of the desert to the public and to future generations of Americans, and encourage companies to find more appropriate land for industrial development.