Western Watersheds Project Stands Up Against Ivanpah Project

The non-profit Western Watersheds Project (WWP) filed a legal challenge against the Department of Interior's approval of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  The challenge is the second lawsuit to be filed against Interior's approval of Ivanpah, a project currently under construction by BrightSource Energy on over 5 square miles of public land and pristine Mojave Desert habitat.  According to WWP's Michael Connor: “No project can be considered clean or green when it involves destruction of habitat for a species listed under Endangered Species Act on this scale.  The Department of Interior is tasked with siting energy projects in an environmentally sound manner. Instead it is allowing thousands of acres of important desert tortoise habitat to be bulldozed when there are alternative ways of generating power.”

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.
The Ivanpah site is located in the Northeastern Mojave Recovery Unit and supports a dense tortoise population, as made evident by the 50 tortoises already counted on or near the site during construction activities.  The proposed mitigation land near the Castle Mountains appears to be at an elevation that tortoises typically do not inhabit, and a recent survey of the area did not locate any live tortoises. The proposed mitigation area also does not fall within the Northeastern Mojave Recovery Unit, and will not contribute to the health of the evolutionary significant unit being displaced or killed by the BrightSource Energy project.


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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 legal action by Western Watersheds Project is a crucial step in preventing energy companies from destroying America's natural resources under the false pretenses of "green" energy.  We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and limit greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no need to sacrifice so much public land in order to do so.   Distributed generation--commonly referred to as "rooftop solar"--could meet much of our renewable energy needs without driving desert tortoises and other fragile desert species closer to extinction.
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.

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