What Next for the California Desert Protection Act?

The mid-May Senate hearing for the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010 or S.2921) was a positive step for the legislation proposed by Senator Feinstein, considering most proposed legislation never makes it beyond the committee.   However, the hearings revealed technical objections from government agencies and some deeper concerns expressed by fellow Senators on the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources.   As noted in a previous post, the legislative calendar and political dynamics outside of California could eclipse the need for near-term sensible land management in the Mojave Desert, and CDPA may not even get the attention it deserves until next year. 

If Senator Feinstein's office can work with the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture to quickly incorporate the technical modifications sought by these agencies during the hearings, the Senator will still face more hurdles before the bill can be put to the full Senate before Congress adjourns this Fall.  I do not believe the adjournment date has been set yet, but considering that it is an election year, you can bet that business will be closed before November.  Also, keep in mind that the Senate will be closed for business from 9 August until 9 September for a lengthy recess. 

The biggest hurdle to CDPA 2010 at the moment appears to be Senators on the committee concerned about the impacts of the legislation on future energy development in the Mojave Desert, as noted in my previous post regarding the hearings.  Senator Murkowski (R-AK) was the most vocal about this concern, but she likely  echoes the sentiments that would be voiced by the opposition if the legislation goes before the full Senate, unless these concerns are addressed.

Senators opposing the bill based on the alleged harm to solar energy industry may not fully understand the pace with which solar energy development could quickly overrun attempts by local, state and Federal agencies to balance industrial needs with conservation of wilderness and recreation space.  As noted during the BLM testimony on 20 May, multiple large-scale solar projects are on a fast track and could break ground before the year.  Even beyond this year,  hundreds of thousands of acres of solar and wind development that are in more initial stages of development could continue to carve out large swaths of open wilderness.  Some of the projects would consume chunks of pristine Mojave Desert larger than Los Angeles International Airport.

Therefore, concerns that CDPA 2010 could stymie investment in solar energy are misplaced.  Ultimately, investment in solar energy over the next few years is not going to be reversed by CDPA 2010 considering the immense government-backed financial incentives for renewable energy.  If anything, more sensible land policy and smart conservation (achieved through CDPA 2010 and mitigation efforts by the BLM and California Department of Fish and Game) could alleviate pressure on energy companies submitting their projects for review to the California Energy Commission (CEC), since the cumulative impact of renewable energy development would be partially balanced by the two new national monuments and additional wilderness areas that would be set aside by CDPA 2010.

Another point that should be more prominent in the debate is that energy companies do not always have the American public's best interest in mind, as evidenced by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Even though "green" energy companies portray themselves in the positive glow of "renewable energy,"  the bottom line is that they are for-profit organizations seeking to benefit from public lands, and seeking public subsidies (in the form of ARRA funding).  Opponents of the legislation only further subsidize and encourage potentially reckless decisions by the energy companies by stalling legislation aimed at balancing energy needs with the need to protect America's natural treasures.

Even if the opponents of the legislation on the Committee can be persuaded to let the legislation move forward relatively unscathed (maintaining it's primary goal of desert conservation), the Gulf oil spill crisis is likely to consume much of the Committee's focus and time over the next few weeks as they receive testimony from government agencies and the energy companies to determine what went wrong and how to fix it.  Additionally, the Congress has not yet proposed or addressed a comprehensive energy bill.  The Gulf oil spill will only further complicate that endeavor since Congress will feel compelled to address such a high profile issue before the elections.  Tackling comprehensive energy legislation will be slow since there are divergent views on whether to restrict off-shore drilling, institute cap-and-trade rules, encourage nuclear energy, etc.  The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources' calendar will be full, with or without CDPA 2010.   Again, the Committee is still one of the first hurdles in the process--preceding consideration by the full Senate, then the House, and then having any differences between the Senate and House reconciled.

With only a few working weeks left in the Senate's calendar before the August-September recess,  it will be difficult for Senator Feinstein and the Committe on Energy and Natural Resources to fit CDPA 2010 on the schedule, and then push it onto the Senate calendar.  We may be looking at CDPA 2011 if the Senator's office cannot achieve passage this year, and the landscape on the Hill could be a lot different in 2011.

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