Western Watersheds Project points out that the Department of the Interior's "fast-track" approval of the Ivanpah Solar project resulted in several shortcomings in the project's environmental review process. Among the complaints, Interior failed to fully identify and consider mitigation measures to off-set the ecological damage that would be done by the project. BrightSource Energy recently announced its proposal to mitigate the loss of endangered desert tortoise habitat by purchasing land near the Castle Mountains.
Several utility-scale solar projects were approved on the assumption that the impacts could be off-set by purchasing suitable desert tortoise habitat elsewhere, although citizens routinely voiced concern that the scale of land purchases necessitated by the massive projects would not be feasible. BrightSource Energy recently announced its proposal to mitigate the loss of endangered desert tortoise habitat by purchasing land near the Castle Mountains. Confirming WWP's concerns that Interior's responsibilities under Federal law--the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act--were improperly deferred, preliminary observations suggest the proposed mitigation area is unlikely to support a robust tortoise population.
|The creosote scrub habitat on the Ivanpah site supports a robust and reproducing population of desert tortoises. The numbers of tortoises found on the site already speak to the ecological significance of the Ivanpah Valley.|
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The map above depicts the Castle Mountains area of the Mojave Desert. Although certainly a site worth restoring and preserving, preliminary analysis suggests it does not have the characteristics of high quality tortoise habitat. It may be disingenuous for BrightSource Energy to pretend that the site satisfies requirements to conserve tortoise habitat.
The WWP challenge also takes issue with the Department of the Interior's decision to treat each of the "fast-track" projects individually in the review process, even though Interior's policy to promote solar energy on public lands would have tremendous cumulative impacts that were not properly evaluated in any of the individual environmental reviews. Interior's "fast-track" policy in conjunction with the Department of Energy's offer of financing and grants for "fast-track" projects essentially constituted a new programmatic policy that had not been reviewed for its environmental impact.
Also of significance, the WWP complaint alleges that the Department of Interior unlawfully "segmented" its environmental review of the Ivanpah project from its review of the El Dorado-Ivanpah Transmission Line. It was well known that if the Ivanpah solar project were to be approved, it would require an upgrade to the transmission lines to carry the energy it produces. That transmission line would have to cross through critical habitat for the desert tortoise. According to previous case law, the National Environmental Policy Act does not allow government agencies to "segment" consideration of related actions. Because Interior's approval of Ivanpah would require approval of a transmission project, the government failed by not evaluating the impacts of both segments in the same review.
The lawsuit's challenges under the Endangered Species Act call out Interior's inadequate surveys of the project site prior to approval, leading to an underestimate of the number of tortoises that would be impacted. As noted previously on the blog, the initial phase of the project estimated that only up to 38 desert tortoises would have to be displaced. However, the initial construction clearing amounting to just 32% of the site has already displaced 30 tortoises, according to the challenge. Others familiar with the project note that at least 50 tortoises have been handled by project workers, although not all of the tortoises are counted as "displaced" if the tortoises are assessed to live outside of the project boundary. Since it is difficult to know where an encountered tortoise lives when it is found by construction crews, even the total of 30 tortoises counted as "displaced" is likely an underestimate.
|A rendering of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System project. Only initial phases of bulldozing have been completed so far, but if the project is allowed to proceed it could irreparably fragment a significant population of desert tortoises.|
|The iconic Desert Tortoise was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. Interior currently considers the species' prospects for recovery as "low" due to the threats to its habitat. Utility-scale solar energy installations could destroy hundreds of square miles of pristine tortoise habitat if approved and constructed. Photo from Basin and Range Watch.|