Stay tuned this week for a few policy and legal developments that will have an impact on our southwestern deserts, including the Mojave.
1.) Solar Programmatic Draft EIS: The Department of the Interior is expected to release the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for its program to rapidly site and permit massive solar facilities on public land, mostly in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. Once the draft EIS is available, probably by the end of the week, the Department of the Interior will accept public comments. One of the key components to watch for are the boundaries of its proposed "solar energy zones," where utility-scale energy projects will be encouraged. The initial "study zones" proposed late last year included ecologically important sites near the Cady Mountains in the Mojave, and throughout the Chuckwalla Valley in the Sonoran Desert. Projects already approved for these areas by the Federal government and State of California threaten to displace or kill scores of desert tortoises, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, Western burrowing owls, and rare desert wildflowers.
2.) Big Solar vs. Cultural Heritage: On 15 December a judge is expected to rule on whether or not to grant an injunction against the Department of the Interior's approval of the Imperial Valley Solar project, which was proposed by Tessera Solar LLC. The Quechan Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, alleging that the agency approved Tessera Solar's project without conducting a thorough review of the cultural landmarks that would be destroyed by the massive solar facility. Tessera Solar's parent company, Ireland-based NTR, recently announced that it would hold off on construction of the project since investors have shied away from its relatively expensive and noisy "SunCatcher" technology. If the lawsuit moves forward, however, it could nonetheless strike a blow to the Department of the Interior for its insufficient "fast track" environmental review of several large solar facilities this year.
3.) The Last Days of the 111th Congress: It's almost the end of the year, and Congress is frantically trying to wrap up unfinished business. Two items to watch include the possible extension of the Treasury Grant Program (TGP), and the California Desert Protection Act of 2010. The TGP is a component of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act that provided grants to renewable energy developers. Unfortunately, some of the ARRA incentives benefited utility-scale projects in California and Nevada deserts that threaten to destroy over 40 square miles of habitat for endangered species. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar has promised to do a better job of siting renewable energy facilities to avoid pristine desert. The barometer for Secretary Salazar's promise will be his decisions on First Solar Inc's Stateline and Desert Sunlight projects, which could have devastating impacts on desert ecology, but they are early in the environmental review process.
While TGP's chances of passage are favorable, the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010, S.2921) may not make its way out of Congress this year. The Senate is considering pulling together an omnibus lands bill that would package dozens of proposed conservation so that Congress can pass them all at once. CDPA 2010 has not yet been reported to the Senate floor by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which means that it is unlikely to be included in the omnibus package. There are still ways of making CDPA 2010 happen, and Senator Feinstein reportedly is working hard to advance the legislation.