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.|
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.|
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.
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.|