Silent Spring: The Sacrifice of California's Deserts

By April 2010, the solar rush in California staked claim to dozens of square miles of pristine desert, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Energy Commission (CEC) were on the verge of granting approvals despite concerns about how these projects would transform wilderness into an industrial zone.  The BLM and CEC were accelerating the approval process to the detriment of public involvement, in a hurry to make good on promises by State and Federal leaders that our public land would be used to generate  renewable energy was mounting.

How Policy Brought the Bulldozers

Months earlier in October 2009, the Secretary of the Interior and Governor Schwarzenegger announced an agreement between the State and Federal governments to speed up the permitting of solar projects on public land in California.  Ironically, they made their announcement at a solar array on Loyola Marymount University's campus, a perfect example of distributed generation or "rooftop solar." The document that the Governor and Secretary signed would lead to the loss of endangered species, wildlife corridors, unspoiled vistas, and historic sites over 100 miles away in the Mojave and Colorado Desert regions where it would cost exponentially more to build, operate and deliver electricity back to the customer in California's cities.

The Governor of California and Secretary of the Interior agree to bulldoze pristine desert, while standing on a better answer to their demand for renewable energy -- rooftop solar. Photo: Office of the Governor.
But the agreement between California and the Department of the Interior was just one in a long line of policy decisions that doomed the desert.   In 2005 the Congress passed the Energy Policy Act.  Among its many provisions was a little known goal set for the Federal government -- build 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public land.  The Department of the Interior was initially slow to answer the call.  But in March 2009, Secretary Salazar authored Order number 3285, an obscure memo to his agencies requiring them to ensure the "timely" processing of renewable energy projects on public land.  Salazar proclaimed that the Department of the Interior was the steward for America's public land, so the siting of renewable energy should be "environmentally responsible."

The BLM, a component of Department of the Interior, would carry out Salazar's instructions to speed up the approval process, but it would ultimately neglect the call for environmental responsibility.  Energy companies had already swarmed the BLM with applications to use public land, eager to qualify for grants and loan guarantees offered by the Department of Energy that were set to expire by 2011.  The companies selected plots of land that would serve profit-making purposes, not the Department of the Interior's call for stewardship.  Energy companies pounced on the political momentum, and touted the benefits of "clean" energy and "green collar" jobs.  But the companies' plans spoke of habitat destruction and greed. 

In a conference call with concerned citizens, Salazar would eventually admit that the projects his office approved would have significant harmful effects on California's deserts, but only hoped his Department would do better with future applications.


A map depicting energy company applications in the Western Mojave Desert.  Dozens more were filed for other parts of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts.  Map: CEC Staff Assessment.
Alarm Bells

By May 2010, the CEC had already published its final impact assessment of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, a project that would destroy 5.6 square miles of desert habitat home to a population of desert tortoises whose genetic diversity would be crucial to the health and survival of the beleaguered species.  The CEC had proposed measures that it believed would offset the significant damage expected when Ivanpah began construction later in the year.  Among them, purchase and set aside land elsewhere for conservation, move tortoises to nearby habitat, and build around sensitive plant species.

The costs to purchase and set aside conservation land to mitigate Ivanpah's damage would cost the company $20 million, a cost expected to be passed down to electricity customers in California.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that the project would displace or kill at least 32 tortoises, and biologists warned that moving tortoises would probably serve as a death sentence for many of the animals.  Previous attempts to relocate tortoises during similar experiments resulted in over half of the tortoises dying within two years of being moved.

Ivanpah will be composed of three large solar arrays that will doom the local desert tortoise population, and erode the genetic strength of the entire species.  Image: CEC Staff Assessment

Ivanpah should have served as a wake-up call for environmental organizations monitoring the permitting process.  The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Defender's of Wildlife provided comments to the BLM and CEC on Ivanpah, and their experts were alarmed by the losses that the solar project would cause.  Local activists and national environmental leaders alike knew that the Ivanpah project was just one of many destructive solar projects in line for approval.   Spring 2010 was an opportunity for these organizations to make an example out of Ivanpah, and to show leadership by steering renewable energy development to already disturbed land or rooftops.

Silence 

The response from national environmental organizations was to silence their local activists who were outraged that massive solar projects could be allowed on pristine habiat and still be called "clean" energy.  Leaders of the Sierra Club were drumming up support to shut down coal plants and the group's rhetoric painted all renewable energy as an idyllic answer to our energy needs.   The Sierra Club barred local chapters from taking action that would be seen as opposition to poorly sited renewable energy projects.  All opposition had to be coordinated at the group's headquarters. 

Spring was a busy time, as the BLM and CEC released draft impact assessments for solar power projects proposed for the Western Mojave Desert and Colorado Deserts.  The Sierra Club and other national environmental organizations were following procedures afforded them by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but each of the organizations knew that only public outrage and law suits could stop the projects.   Their involvement in the NEPA process was a token step that would only result in minor changes to the projects.

Spring was the time that the Sierra Club and its sister organizations should have done what they do best.  Rally the troops.  Any member of these organizations knows that when action is necessary, there will be petitions circulated, protests organized, letters to representatives mailed , and press releases handed out to the media.  If you were on their mailing lists in the Spring, you probably were asked to stop mountain-top removal mining, or the poaching of endangered wolves--all noble goals.  But you probably never heard that the desert was under siege. The nation's environmental leadership did not have the heart to save California's deserts from a beast they created but could not control.  Energy companies were rolling onto pristine desert habitat, wrapped in the garb of renewable energy, and backed by Washington and Sacramento politicians that environmental groups had begged for years to abandon coal.

The Sierra Club continued to project an image of itself inconsistent with reality.  A champion of local environmental activists, and a leader of the renewable energy movement.   But its own grassroots members were gagged, and it had no power over renewable energy companies or government agencies preparing to spoil public land. 

A bulldozer begins grading the Ivanpah Valley.  Biologists have already displaced 40 tortoises in the initial stages of construction.  Photo: Basin and Range Watch

Time for Action?

If all of the approved solar projects move forward this year, over 40 square miles of mostly pristine California and Nevada desert will be lost to "clean" energy (projects:  Ivanpah, Calico, Genesis, Imperial, SilverLight,  and Palen).  That is just the first round in a potentially long and losing fight for our deserts.  As of summer 2010, the BLM was considering applications for another 37 projects in California alone that would destroy over 500 square miles of public land.

Public involvement in the approval process under NEPA failed to prevent poorly sited projects, and Secretary Salazar's promise to do better is nothing more than the verbal commitment of an appointed official.  Our government decision makers and environmental organizations must take steps to keep industrial energy development away from pristine desert, either through legal action or a change to policy that encourages conservation of our dwindling desert habitat, and rooftop solar over massive projects on public land.

Poorly sited solar projects were finally hit by opposition in Novemeber when the Quechan Tribe backed up bark with bite and sued the Department of the Interior for approving Tessera Solar LLC's project near Imperial Valley.  According to the lawsuit, the Department rushed the approval process and ignored concerns raised by the tribe that the Imperial site contained many culturally significant landmarks.   The Imperial site would also destroy over 9 square miles of habitat and kill or displace the rare flat-tailed horned lizard.

The Sierra Club also began to offer a glimmer of hope by mid-November.  It's lawyers told Reuters that it was still considering a lawsuit against a massive 7 square mile project in the Western Mojave Desert.  The Calico Solar power project was proposed by Tessera Solar LLC for public land that is home to a high density of desert tortoises, a corridor for threatened bighorn sheep, and rare desert plants that are found only in isolated pockets of the Mojave.  If the Sierra Club follows through with its lawsuit threat, it will constitute the first substantial effort by the environmental community to correct a broken approval process for big solar projects.

All signs suggest the Department of the Interior will stick with its current process until the public realizes that renewable energy generated from the middle of desert tortoise habitat is as "clean" as coal from West Virginia.   Governor-elect Jerry Brown takes office next year, and will have the opportunity to end the Department of the Interior's rubber-stamping of energy projects in California's deserts.   He will need to decide whether or not the California Energy Commission (CEC) should continue to be Interior's co-conspirator, or shift to truly "clean" energy in the form of distributed generation (rooftop solar) or projects on already-disturbed land.  We will know next year when Governor Brown assumes control, and when his CEC makes its first decision on renewable energy projects.

Whatever is decided in Sacramento and Washington, our deserts cannot sustain the current renewable energy policy.  The loss of forty square miles of desert to solar projects will deal a severe blow to wildlife and ecology this year, but hundreds of more square miles of energy projects will rob future generations of the desert solitude and inspiration that we have taken for granted, and which cannot be reproduced in a zoo or museum.

The proposed site of the Calico Solar power project--home to scores of threatened desert tortoises--awaits its verdict.  Once bulldozed, this ecosystem may never return to its original state.  Photo: CEC Assessment of Calico Solar power project.

Comments

  1. Glad to see that the CEC put its approval of Calico on hold.

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  2. What about the Wild Horses? For over a year they have been rounded-up by helicopter chase in unprecedented numbers...and it continues. Last winter, massive numbers of wild horses from the Calico Mts. were rounded up in freezing temps, raced over icy terrain. The casualties were massive and horrendous. Salazar cares NOT for any wildlife. Talk GREED, talk the man who listens to no one: SALACZAR!

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  3. An excellent, spot on analysis as usual here.

    The rumblings from the Sierra Club are a good start and will definitely help stop the Calico project, providing of course, that this is a real threat that they intend to follow through on, and not just a tactic to assuage their activist base.

    Of course in the grand scheme of things, the absolute best time to strike with such a lawsuit would have been Ivanpah,which might have had the effect of stopping most of these projects in the bud, unfortunately that grand strategic opportunity was lost.

    The Mojave and other deserts will be permanently ruined by that mistake, which I feel will be cited for decades in the future as one of the greatest miscalculations by the mainstream environmental groups in their history.

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  4. From a fairly high position in the Sierra Club, I must nevertheless say that this analysis is accurate and true. The Sierra Club has taken large donations from the corporate Big Energy developers that now threaten the desert with the help of the government. Check out the Energy Foundation, for one. Part of the problem is the Club is run and led lots more by paid staff than by volunteers like me. Staffers have to be paid, and there is a constant temptation to take money from corporate sources so that they can continue being paid. The staffers are mostly good people, but they are only human. This is one reason Sierra Club has not exactly jumped in with both feet to get good feed-in tariff legislation passed. A decent FiT would encourage distributed generation and create a real opportunity for small businesses to get involved in the electricity market and give the big utilities and the Wall Street backed big solar developers some real competition. So please google the Feed-in Tariff Coalition and get involved!

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  5. Bill, agreed that Ivanpah would have been a better time to make an example out of bad policy. I'll take Calico, however -- better late than never.

    And thank you to Anonymous -- distributed generation or rooftop solar needs policy support in the form of a Feed-in-Tariff. What could be better than a citizen or business owning their own source of energy, saving public land for future generations.

    People label my blog as another "NIMBY" site, but what I'm actually asking that we generate energy in our backyard before we destroy our wilderness.

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